A Sparkling Vintage Life


T is for Tonic

I became interested recently in the concept of a “spring tonic,” something I’d run across now and then in historical fiction, but was never too sure what it was. So, belatedly, I looked it up. One of the dictionary definitions of “tonic” is “something that invigorates, restores, refreshes or stimulates.”


So I dug further. Turns out a “spring tonic” is a tincture, tea, or soup made by boiling the early greens of spring, such as dandelions, rhubarb, sassafrass, and nettle. According to the trusty Farmer’s Almanac, “The early settlers were firm believers in the tonic effects of eating spring greens: they were said to stimulate the digestion, purify the blood, cure scurvy and ague, combat rheumatism, and repel kidney stones after a long cold winter of inactivity.

“Rich in vitamins and trace minerals, these cleansing greens and roots were prepared and drunk in early spring, providing much-needed nourishment and energy after a nutrient-poor winter. Tonics also stimulated the appetite, the circulation, and bodily functions as settlers got ready for physical farm labor.”

If you’d like to try making a spring tonic of your own, the Internet abounds with simple recipes. Just be sure you know what you’re doing; don’t use chemically-treated plants, and use only the stalks of rhubarb, never the leaves, as the leaves are poisonous.

S is for Skirts

I love to wear skirts. I think they’re so much more comfortable and flattering than jeans or slacks (on my admittedly zaftig shape). I like the way skirts swish around my legs in summer, creating their own breeze when I walk. I like tucking my legs up underneath for warmth when I sit (of course, it has to be the right kind of skirt for this kind of maneuver … a pencil skirt won’t do the trick).

Skirts are versatile. In 1964, Genevieve Dariaux wrote, “With several skirts, blouses, sweaters, and an assortment of belts it is possible to be very attractively dressed and even to create the impression of possessing a rather vast wardrobe, all for a minimum investment.”

But for a reason I can’t fathom, she goes on to say “a skirt can be worn with a sweater or blouse day in, day out, from one end of the year to the other, almost anywhere at all–except on a city street (unless it is covered by a coat). What? Why would a skirt be considered inappropriate on a city street in 1964? That makes no sense to me. If anyone knows the answer to that puzzling statement, please post it in the comments.

R is for Roses

I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.”
–Emma Goldman

You won’t see many quotes from anarchist political agitator Emma Goldman on this blog, but on this point, I have to agree.

Q is for Quality

Quality, when applied to clothes, is another of those words that can sound fusty and outdated to a modern ear. In an age of fast fashion, cheap materials, and instant everything, who has time to bother about quality? I’ve certainly worn my share of “great deals” that faded or fell apart after two or three washings, or shoes that looked fabulous only on the shoe rack and were sheer torture to wear.

In Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dot Rodgers experiences something similar: “Dot caught the bride glancing her way and lifted her rouged lips in what she hoped was a brilliant smile, all the while striving to rise above the scratchy lace trim torturing her collarbone. This gown is the absolute limit. The dainty shoes, too, that had looked so scrumptious in the footwear display at Marshall Field’s, proved no match for the length of Pastor Rooney’s droning remarks about the blessings of holy matrimony and whatnot.”

The question of high quality vs. cheap is not a new one. In The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance (1943) Grace Margaret Morton wrote, “The importance of good fabrics cannot be overemphasized, as good lines cannot be achieved in cheap or shoddy materials. As fabrics play an important role in style, so do fit and workmanship; cheap workmanship and poor fit can never be concealed.”

Veronica Dengle (1946) says it more colorfully: “Do not buy clothes of such poor material that they are ‘sleazy looking’ and out of shape after a few wearings. Cheap materials come back from the cleaner with crooked hems, shrunken sleeves, and gaping necklines. Learn the difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive.’ ”

Money doesn’t necessarily equal quality, though. There’s plenty of high-priced schlock out there, as well as sturdy, well-crafted bargains. Genevieve Dariaux (1964) reminds us, “A dress marked down to half price and worn only once is sheer extravagance, while a perfect little custom-made suit costing six times as much and worn with confidence day in and day out during eight months a year for several years is an outstanding bargain.”

(If you’re interested in looking more deeply into cheap fashion and its surprising impact on our closets, our economy, and our world, pick up the excellent book Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline.)

With a practiced eye, it’s possible to find well-made clothes at less-than-vertigo-inducing prices. Just be patient, watch for sales, and learn to recognize signs of quality when you shop, such as straight seams and hems, securely sewn buttons, easy-gliding zippers, no weird gaps or puckers in the construction. When you find yourself reaching for your favorite garments week after week, you’ll be glad you did.

P is for Pearls

Photo source; The White House

Since hearing of the April 17 death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, I’ve been remembering her iconic strands of pearls. So I was charmed to learn about the #pearlsforBarbara hashtag, with people remembering Barbara with their own pearl images and stories.

Pearls. A timeless, classic look for a classy lady. It’s time to bring them back into style–not that they’ve ever really gone out.


O is for Ovaltine

Originally called “Ovomaltine” (“ova” for egg and “malt” for, well, malt) the classic drink Ovaltine was invented in 1909 in Switzerland. When it was brought to England, the name was shortened to Ovaltine (later said to be an anagram of “Vital One). The original formula contained malt, eggs, cocoa, and milk. Today it’s changed somewhat, but is still a comfort drink for many people worldwide, whether served hot or cold.

In the 1930s, Ovaltine sponsored several children’s radio programs including Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight. Children wrote the company eagerly to get toys such as the iconic “secret decoder ring” that would help them decipher codes given during the programs.

Have you ever tried Ovaltine?

N is for Nail Polish

Matching nail polish to lipstick color is a trend that has gone in and out of fashion.

Continuing our cosmetics trifecta that began with lipstick and mascara, let’s look today at nail polish.

According to this fun and informative article, nail polish originated in China around 3000 B.C. and was also used by the ancient Egyptians. These early polishes were made up of natural ingredients including beeswax and vegetable dyes. The modern nail polish we know and love has its origin shortly before the First World War–surprisingly, in the development of durable, shiny paint for the newfangled automobiles. At first nail polish was colorless and would have given the nails a shiny, buffed appearance in keeping with the cosmetics-free look considered most appropriate for women outside of the stage or bordello.

In 1932 Revlon introduced the first colored nail enamel, in a slightly racier cream color. By 1934 red was available, but was associated with “fast” women the way eye makeup had been just a few years earlier. Technicolor movies gave a major boost to red nail polish in the public eye, since the vivid color was now visible on the silver screen on stars like Rita Hayworth.

In the 1940s, Rita Hayworth gave a big boost to the popularity of red nail polish.

Colored nail polishes are enormously fun, and useful as well. Colored polish matched closely to your shoe color can help disguise a scuff or scratch in the material. You can even use colored polish to color-code things like keys.

But clear polish can be more useful than colored. Did you know that painting a little clear nail polish directly on pantyhose will help stop a run in its tracks? Or that clear nail polish painted on a metal ring or earring can prevent tarnish? Or that painting it on the end of a piece of thread will make threading it through a needle a less ornery task?

I’ll admit, I like the way nail polish looks, but I seldom wear it myself, except on my toes in summer. Why? Because I work with my hands a lot and hate dealing with chips. Clear or pale polish helps mitigate that somewhat. Maybe this summer I’ll make a greater effort to keep my nails polished and pretty. Do you wear polish? If so, what’s your favorite color?

M is for Mascara (and Maybelline)

Image source: retro-advertising.com

If there’s one cosmetic I hate to leave the house without, it’s mascara. Unadorned, my pale lashes cause people to ask if I’m feeling a bit peaked, to use  an antique euphemism for you look like death warmed over.

Today on M-day I’m lumping “mascara” and “Maybelline” together because, for many years, the two words were synonymous. According to The Maybelline Story, a book written by Sharrie Williams (grandniece of Maybelline’s founder), in 1915 Tom Lyle Williams developed a compound to help his sister, Mabel, who had singed her eyebrows and eyelashes in a kitchen accident. Tom observed how she mixed coal dust with Vaseline petroleum jelly to darken the remaining hairs. Armed with a rudimentary chemistry set, Tom worked https://www.amazon.com/Maybelline-Spirited-Family-Dynasty-Behind-ebook/dp/B008RDGIVCout a more suitable substitute. Ultimately the final product–not yet called mascara but simply “Maybelline,” as in “Wait here while I put on my Maybelline”–was manufactured by the Parke-Davis Laboratories in Michigan. Tom Lyle (always the two names together) named his company after Mabel, the product’s inspiration, who was employed at the company, along with several other family members.

While some sources credit Frenchman Edouard Rimmel, a perfumer, with the inventing the product. Rimmel’s mascara also was a mixture of coal dust and Vaseline, Maybelline surely did invent the cake mascara, which consisted of a solid cake of mascara in a tin, accompanied by a tiny applicator brush. (Today Besame Cosmetics makes an up-to-date version of cake mascara, which is surprisingly versatile as an eye liner and brow darkener as well. I’ve been using it with excellent results.) Revlon, a company founded by Charles Revson, later invented the wand-type mascara in a tube we’re familiar with today.

One of the obstacles the Williams family had to overcome in the World War I years was the negative reaction to eye makeup, which at the time was associated with theater people and prostitutes, not “nice” ladies. The company helped change attitudes by hiring wholesome-looking models and film stars in their advertising. In the 1920s, the public warmed to eye makeup as the flapper darkened her brows and lashes. And mascara has been with us ever since. Great Lash, Maybelline’s want mascara in the iconic pink-and-green tube, has been a bestseller since it’s introduction in the Sixties.

I was surprised to learn that Maybelline was headquartered in Chicago for decades. Chances are my fictional characters Marjorie and Dot would have “put on their Maybelline” in the 1920s! In 1967 Maybelline was sold to L’Oreal and today is known as “Maybelline New York.”


L is for Lipstick

When I first posted about matching lipsticks to car paint, I was driving a dark blue Dodge Stratus. As I am not a vampire, dark blue lipstick did not find its way into my makeup case at the time.

Fast forward to today, when I’m driving a dark red Subaru Outback. At last the possibility of finding a lipstick in Subaru Red exists.


In case you’re curious, I’ve written about my current favorite lipsticks here.

K is for kaffeeklatsch

Yesterday’s Sparkling Vintage moment was a French concept, joie de vivre. Today we’re thanking the Germans for kaffeeklatsch, a term that dates back to 1888, from kaffee (coffee) and klatsch (gossip or chitchat).

The website etymonline.com quotes Mary Alden Hopkins from a 1905 cooking magazine: “The living-room in a German household always contains a large sofa at one side of the room, which is the seat of honor accorded a guest. At a Kaffeeklatsch (literally, coffee gossip) the guests of honor are seated on this sofa, and the large round table is wheeled up before them. The other guests seat themselves in chairs about the table.” Although any beverage, coffee or tea, can be consumed, a kaffeeklatsch carries a less formal connotation than a tea party.

Here in North America throughout much of the 20th century, kaffeeklatsches were enjoyed by homemakers, who might take a break from household chores mid-morning or midafternoon to gather with neighbors around one of their kitchen tables for coffee and chitchat. Now, with many women working full-time and those at home too busy to sit and chat for an hour, the kaffeeklatsch tradition has pretty much fallen by the wayside (although there’s a loose workplace approximation–the coffee break). Perhaps the modern equivalent is the playdate, where parents chat while their children play together. It doesn’t seem like quite the same thing, though.

Perhaps we need a kaffeeklatsch revival–well, maybe not the gossip part, but certainly the caffeine and conviviality. And the coffee cake. Here’s a recipe from a 1950s church cookbook to inspire you.


1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 Tb. butter, melted
1/2 c. milk
1 well beaten egg

Sift all dry ingredients together, then add the melted butter, milk and egg. Put in wide shallow pan and sprinkle with granulated sugar and cinnamon. Bake 20 minutes in moderate oven (350 degrees F.).

The recipe writer notes with brutal honesty, “This is good with morning coffee but should be made just before eating. It isn’t good after it stands.”

Do you think the kaffeeklatsch is a tradition worthy of reviving? Why or why not?

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Jennifer Lamont Leo