Colonial Dames, the First California Perfume Company?
I am enchanted by a new find this week, a wonderful vintage Lilac perfume with the evocative name Candle Light made by Colonial Dames. Marietta Bosworth Willats, an American stage actress, established the company in San Francisco in 1886. Her picture, as well as some additional historical insights and photographs, is still featured on the official Colonial Dames website (http://www.colonialdames.com/). Colonial Dames was one of the first companies of its kind, particularly on the West Coast to offer its clients high quality skin care, toiletry products. In fact, the California Perfume Company- now Avon- is often touted as the first American perfume and tioletry company. It was also established in 1886 although contrary to it's name, on the East coast. However on the west coast which was considerably less civilized at that time, Colonial Dames quickly became a favorite of Californian women. Actresses like Marietta and other modern-minded gals especially flocked to Colonial Dames seeking to enhance their natural charms. By the 1920s the company relocated closer to the heart of California's burgeoning film industry- Los Angeles. There Colonial Dames became an early favorite among professional make-up men and prop handlers, flourishing through the 1930s and 40s. In fact the company is still in existance although their current product line appears to consist solely of vitamin E oil and creams.
This photohgraph from the 1936 Three Stooges film short "Slippery Silks" provides us a glimpse of Colonial Dames products and among the jars, several perfume bottles. Reportedly the company produced a few perfumes after World War II, including Bachelor Button and Tra-La (1946), French Quarter (1956) and Cloud 7 (1961). Note that my own bottle has a foil/paper label, is made of very thin glass and has a panelled hand-blown mold construction. It has a tiny cut glass stopper as well. Considering its style and construction I estimate my Colonial Dames perfume bottle is from the 1930s. I was delighted to find the scent of the perfume seems to be well preserved!
At the very first whiff, I detected a strong animal, indolic note, and worried about the wearability of the perfume. But it was only a trace of fish, from the really sticky residue that had accumulated at the neck of the container. As soon as I dabbed some of fresher juice from inside the container onto my skin, I detected a much sweeter scent. At first, I had an impression of a jasmine, almost jonquil like scent, a spicy floral with a fruity, almost frambois quality. The perfume has a piercing intensity, animalic-turpentine touches and something harsher and woody, possibly vetiver, in the base. Yet the overall effect is sweet and floral and thoroughly wearable. As it wears, an ambery "play-doh" base with mild bready undertones emerges. I can detect a small amount of what may be fir balsam in the dry down as well. I asked my husband to give it a sniff in its full-on sweet phase- he's my 'control subject', and he said it smelled of fresh cut pine wood shavings and a spicy, incensy flowers. He also gave it a thumbs up for wearability. Lilac is a classic flower that many of our grandmothers used in their own home brewed perfume concoctions and it has been largely ignored in fine modern perfumery. Aside from being lovely to look at, it is one of those flowers blessed with a complex nature and creates a soliflor that can smell like a fully developed composition. Candlelight is a lovely, rich and complex lilac. For as much as I can smell, the quality of the juice is apparent. For me, this is an important find because it speaks to the early history and high quality of commerical perfumery in California. I would say this humble creation rivals a period Caron in quality, which it reminds me of very much in terms of scent character.
The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.
Note: photographs of Miss Bosworth and the Three Stooges were borrowed from the Colonial Dames webiste, although the Three Stooges footage is available elsewhere. The shot of Candlelight Perfume bottle is my husband's.