Jennifer Van Horn: The Deceptive Caboodle

cover photo for thepower of objects in eight-teen century british americaToday we welcome a guest post by Jennifer Van Horn, author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Anglo-Americans purchased an unprecedented number and array of goods. Van Horn investigates these diverse artifacts—from portraits and city views to gravestones, dressing furniture, and prosthetic devices—to explore how elite American consumers assembled objects to form a new civil society on the margins of the British Empire. In this interdisciplinary transatlantic study, artifacts emerge as key players in the formation of Anglo-American communities and eventually of American citizenship. Deftly interweaving analysis of images with furniture, architecture, clothing, and literary works, Van Horn reconstructs the networks of goods that bound together consumers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.

Today Van Horn shows how a 1990s teen cosmetics contraption mirrored the centuries-old rituals of revelation and concealment in women’s toilette.

The Deceptive Caboodle

I remember with fondness, as do many of us who came of age in the 1990s, my neon pink and purple “caboodle.” For those of you unfamiliar with the form, it is a molded plastic container with a latched top that raises up to reveal a multitude of trays, containers, and mysteriously shaped indentations all intended to house cosmetics, hair products, and personal accessories. For my teenage self the caboodle was the ultimate symbol of femininity and the mysterious physical manipulations of skin and hair that being an adult woman required. My caboodle is long since gone, but I suspect its lingering memory shaped my interest in eighteenth-century cosmetics and the dressing furniture that housed them.

In the 1780s, dressing furniture in early America got bigger and increasingly elaborate. Perhaps the best example is a dressing table made for New Yorker Margaret Maria Livingston and now in The New-York Historical Society. This almost five-and-a-half-foot-tall table is impressive; its gleaming mahogany surface—each drawer and door front embellished with an oval inlay—is festooned with inlaid swags above the central looking glass and capped with flamboyantly carved and gilded urns above the cabinets at both corners. Yet, in looking at the piece I was most interested in how Margaret Livingston used it each morning. What did she do when she sat down before the looking glass?

Margaret Livingston’s toilette, like that of many elite women in early America, was an exercise in revelation and concealment.
If Livingston followed the advice found in contemporary cosmetics manuals and books on housewifery, along with the physical cues provided by her dressing table itself, then we can reconstruct what she did at her toilette. First she pulled out the central drawer to reveal the water-filled basin secreted inside (now missing). Lifting up the wooden lids on either side of the basin, she unveiled a series of compartments that housed the beautifying lotions she used to anoint her skin. Next she opened the doors to the cabinets situated on either side of the central mirror. Unfolding the panels hinged on the interior to uncover two oval looking glasses, she positioned the mirrors to best reflect her visage. Then reaching into the cabinets Livingston accessed the tiny drawers, previously concealed within, to extract the rouges, powders, and pastes that she applied to her face, and the earrings and necklaces with which she adorned her body. Finally, pushing aside the tambour doors at her knees, she rummaged within the cavity for pomade and hair powder to repair her coiffure.

Margaret Livingston’s toilette, like that of many elite women in early America, was an exercise in revelation and concealment. At her knowing touch mirrors secreted behind doors sprang into view and compartments full of cosmetics suddenly appeared. None of the materials she required to complete her dressing ritual were immediately visible on the table’s surface; all had to be obtained from inside the piece of furniture. This made sense to my caboodle-versed self. Who would want to put cosmetics out on view for all to see? The allure of femininity, as I understood it, was the transformation that happened during the toilette. But if everyone knew what was in your caboodle then the magic was gone.

I might imagine that I understood female users’ desire for concealment, but I wondered why it was so important for women in the early republic to hide their cosmetics. Why did Livingston require such a large and heavily ornamented table? What was Livingston trying to conceal in her dressing table and why? In Chapter Five of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America I explore cosmetics and the intricate deception they enabled.

Jennifer Van Horn, author of The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America, is assistant professor of art history and history at the University of Delaware.