Object Analysis

 

Brass compact from the late 1800s
Brass compact from the late 1800s

This round object is four inches in diameter and weighs a scant two to three ounces. By its size, the object seems constructed to fit into the palm of a hand. It is circular with a few dings and dents along the edges. It is made of brass and has a dirty brownish patina, almost the color of burnt sienna. Although round, the object has a flat top and bottom, and is very thin, slim. The top is a disc or plate resting on a bottom disc or plate. At what could be considered the top edge of the object is a cylindrical chamber that connects the bottom piece to the top piece. A small round pin slips into the chamber creating a hinge connecting the top plate to the bottom plate. This hinge allows the top disc to separate from the bottom disc and still stay connected at the topmost edge. Upon lifting the top disc from the bottom disc a tiny thin lip rims each plate. The lip or edge of the top disc is slightly larger than the bottom plate which allows it to nestle over the bottom plate when closed. The lip jutting from the edge of the bottom plate is interrupted at the bottom most edge (the point furthest away from the connective hinge) by a small rectangular notch. This notch allows for access to open or separate the two discs.

While the two bronze discs are connected and almost identical in size, the top disc is slightly larger and is imprinted with raised decorative pattern. This decorative pattern denotes that this disc is the top piece or lid of the object, and indicates that the object is likely made for a woman. The decorative pattern is a series of repeating teardrop paisley shapes that follows interior circumference of the lid. The pattern is inset from the edge of the lid by just a few millimeters. The interior edge of the teardrop pattern rests along two thin parallel lines that complete the edge of the decorative border. Another decorative detail stamps the center of the lid. A circle created by two thin lines identical to the interior border of the teardrop pattern sits in the very middle of the lid. This circle is framed by a delicate, curlicue decoration resembling a shield or crest. The emptiness of the center circle seems like it might be holding a place for a monogram or further decoration.

The interior of the top lid has the same repeating pattern, but it is stamped into the metal rather than raised in relief as it is on the top. This suggests that the pattern was stamped from the bottom and then protrudes from the top of the lid. The interior of the bottom disc has no such decoration, and is in fact very rough and scratched. This rough texture indicates that something was once attached by some form of adhesive to the bottom plate.

The object has to have some purpose. It is not just two attached lids that open and close. The decoration on the inside and outside of the top lid indicates that the object is meant to be open and gazed at. The shield-like crest on the front is another clue to the use of the object. The shield is delicately decorated, and the void in the center circle could possibly be for a monogram. But the shield emblem alludes to a framed object, like a mirror. Since there is no decoration on the bottom lid, it is likely that what ever the object contained rested there. The scratched surface of the bottom lid indicates that something was attached by an adhesive. The delicate decoration, the slim, lightweight dimensions are all clues that this object belonged to a woman and was likely carried in her purse.

The object is a compact that was unearthed somewhere on the west side of Atlanta near what is now the Bankhead MARTA station. The object is tarnished and pretty banged up, most likely from age and being at some point lost or discarded. The mirror and the woman’s image it once held are both long gone. The brass material and the delicate decoration indicate that it was at one time a rather fancy fashion accessory.

This small brass compact pocket mirror uncovered on the west side of Atlanta holds much untold history in its slim form. Who owned it? What woman, for it was surely a woman, gazed into the long lost mirror that snugged inside the decorative lid and discreetly dabbed pressed powder on her cheeks? The compact itself dates back to the late 1800s, just post civil war. Was it a carpetbagger that brought the brass accessory down from the north? Perhaps more likely it belonged to a genteel woman from the surrounding farm land that ringed Atlanta at the turn of the century, since a northern interloper would have more likely to settled closer to the city limits. Or, even more likely, the fashion piece was just unwittingly misplaced, lost as so many items eventually are, during a move to another home or just walking down the street. Whether a precious heirloom or just a casual fancy, the compact was found once again when the city of Atlanta prepared to expand its MARTA public transportation system. The piece which some lady thought lost forever was now back on the radar, not just a pocket mirror now, but as an artifact telling a story of an Atlanta long past.

West Atlanta, Georgia Tech Campus Image Credit: http://www.metafilter.com/76678/20-compelling-photos-from-the-Civil-War

The brass compact, though, has a history that extends much further than just the Atlanta, GA. Why did the woman have a make-up compact in the first place? Why do we look in the mirror? What is the significance of the brass material and its design? I started thinking about the inherent duality of the mirror itself. The intricately designed brass, a thing of beauty used for the purpose of beautification. The origins of brass metallurgy date back to ancient times. Romans crafted brass into decorative armor and also into jewelry like brooches and bangles. Some of the very first uses for it were for currency, and the earliest Roman coins were made of brass. Later on the Romans employed it more and more for battle pieces, emblazoning helmets, shields, and chest plates, and then for death masks and burial markings after the ultimate battle was fought. So even the first craftsmen of the metal recognized its duality, its value for both beauty and destruction.

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

The forgotten pocket mirror heralds the Greek myth of Narcissus. The handsome young hunter was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection. He gazed at himself in a river, refusing to eat or sleep. His despair of unrequited love with his own image led him to commit suicide. Again, the cutting tale of what the Romantic poets would call the sublime. Beauty and danger, life and death are both present in the same vessel. Or more succinctly, immortality captured in a moment's reflection. The same is true of this humble brass compact unearthed here in Atlanta.

The compact held more than just a mirror, though. The pressed powder make up cake that lined the bottom of the compact also represents the sublime essence of beauty mingled with death. People have been using make up for thousands of years, and some of the concoctions used were more deadly than beautifying. While early forms of cosmetics ranged from the grotesque like crocodile dung, boys' urine, and blood, to the more exotic and beautiful like crushed gemstones, beeswax, and henna, many beauty products contained lead as well as other toxic materials. Egyptian women applied a combination of metals, including lead, to their skin for color definition. This practice of lead treated make up was common throughout history to achieve a coveted pale complexion.  Queen Elizabeth I popularized the use of white lead paint to create a youthful appearance.  Queen Victoria eventually declared make up vulgar and only for actors after the use of leaded make up paints resulted in facial paralysis and some deaths. The practice never totally went out of fashion, obviously, as we spend millions of dollars on make up here in the US alone. At the turn of the twentieth century, though, the powder in the brass compact very likely contained some degree of lead or other toxic metals. The use of lead in cosmetics was not fully banned here in this country until 2007.

During the mid 1800s, near the time when this little brass compact was likely made, lead was used for purposes other than lightening skin tones. Lead minie balls were the ammunition most common here in the south during the bloody civil war. I was struck by the contrast of such a beautiful fashion accessory existing at the time of such violence and strife, and how the compact—the material of which it was composed and the material which it contained—embodied the sublime nature of life and death, beauty and horror.

Image Credit: http://www.historyplace.com/civilwar/

All of these inferences may seem a little too gigantic for such a small finite pocket mirror. Walter Benjamin's article "The Collector" from The Arcades Project addresses just  how these collectible objects like compacts become so much more than the physical space they inhabit.

The truth of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space...the method of receiving the things into our space. We don't displace our being into theirs; they step into our lives. 

The compact has stepped into a Georgia State Classroom in 2015 Atlanta. I have held it in my hand and changed its reality just as it has changed mine. I may never know the actual history of this compact. Who owned it? Was it a gift from mother to daughter, husband to wife? How did it come to be lost? But I can look at it and imagine. I can write about it, photograph it, describe it.

Through the stylistic analysis of objects, we encounter the past at first hand; we have direct sensory experience of surviving historical events, not necessarily important events, but authentic events nonetheless. This affective mode of apprehension through the senses allows us to put ourselves, figuratively speaking, inside the skins of individuals who commissioned, made, used , or enjoyed these objects, to see with their eyes and touch with their hands, to identify with them empathetically, is clearly a different way of engaging the past than abstractly through the written word.-- Style as Evidence, Jules David Prown

Strange that such an object represent so many dimensions of reality.