Early last century, a pioneering deodorant with the altogether unsubtle name of Odorono ran an advert with the words “Within the curve of a woman’s arm”. The line accompanied an image of a couple in a romantic embrace and was followed by the subhead: “A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided”. The ad’s success paved the way for Cutex to remind women that “at every move of your hands – your nails are conspicuous”; and for Listerine, in 1923, to warn that bad breath was a reason for being “often a bridesmaid but never a bride”.
But while these feminine secrets of how to look and smell good were largely confined to the pages of magazines, the corresponding posters of the time were altogether more joyful, using graphic, colourful illustrated images. “Adverts on bus shelters were mostly for creams, soaps and perfumes,” says dealer Kirill Kalinin, owner of London boutique AntikBar, which currently has a 1950s German poster (£450) advertising Zeozon sun cream to the skiing crowd.
The crème de la crème of beauty posters, however, tend to be those from the art nouveau and art deco periods. “It’s been a desirable subject matter for about 40 years, so those from the turn of the century up to the 1930s are hard to find,” says Robert Chisholm, co-owner of New York’s Chisholm Larsson Gallery, whose stock ranges from a 1930s French poster for Jackita hair dye ($1,200) to a set of four Chanel No 5 posters ($1,600) created by Andy Warhol in the ’90s.
Chisholm highlights a “rare 1900 French poster” signed “Rasel”: a floral confection for Rose-Irène Crême with eye-popping pink typography. “We sold it for about $2,000 14 years ago – and don’t expect to find another. Today, works by Charles Loupot from the ’20s and ’30s can easily fetch $5,000.” The French artist created iconic images for Coty lipstick, as well as Serodent toothpaste. A 1935 design for the latter, featuring graphic pink-and-white squirts of toothpaste against a black background, is $7,500 at Artifiche in Zürich (alongside a 1938 advert for Silvikrin hair tonic – an image of a woman sprouting grass and flowers instead of hair that led to complaints from hairdressers whose clients were concerned the product would encourage a literal garden of growth).
Loupot’s Serodent image adheres to the style of the Swiss object poster, created in the first half of the 20th century and characterised by hyper-realistic, dramatically coloured drawings – their design accentuated by the country’s cutting-edge lithographic printing. A c1950 example by Donald Brun for Mettler soap is SFr2,170 (about £1,710) at Galerie 123 in Geneva; while a 1945 poster by Niklaus Stoecklin depicting a tube of Binaca toothpaste inside an oyster shell – “For pearly white teeth” – is $2,250 at Boston’s International Poster Gallery.
For Eric Kellenberger, a different Stoecklin design for Binaca is among the best beauty posters in his collection – some 20,000 pieces he is now looking to sell in one swoop. “You need cherries on the cake, when you are trying to sell a cake,” says the trained architect. “And I have many cherries.” These include a perfume poster by art nouveau heavyweight Alphonse Mucha; fine French and German art deco prints, such as the colourful Jupp Wiertz illustration of a woman holding a parasol for Kaloderma soap (a version of which sold in 2004 for €10,500); and a striking, modernist 1947 design for a Roger & Gallet lipstick. His less rarefied finds, another 6,800 of them, he sells in his eBay store, which turns up “aesthetic eye-catchers” for Liljemjölk cream ($750) and Tonicyle Madelys eye care ($150).
Another collector, Zürich-based software sales manager Kata Budahazy, focuses on works from her home country of Hungary. “I combine 1970s images for beauty brand Fabulon – owned by my family – with fashion posters from the ’60s and contemporary art. I have at least one poster in each room,” she says. “I love the colours and shapes; they’re full of energy.”
Budahazy is a regular client of Budapest Poster Gallery, launched by Adam Varkonyi in 2010 to shine a light on Hungarian poster art of the 20th century. “The compositions are strong, vivid and clear; the colour schemes robust and concentrated,” he says. “They were printed in very small numbers compared to French, British, American, Russian and German posters, and so are very rare.” Varkonyi has several Fabulon posters – including a 1974 design for hand cream ($1,200) – and a small pop-art piece for an Opera lipstick ($400). But topping these in terms of price, at $8,000, is an “outstanding masterpiece by Gyozo Szilas”. It doesn’t feature a glamorous woman or floral flourishes; instead, it shows a tube of toothpaste. The epitome of vintage beauty, it seems, is clean teeth.