Perfume Atomizers: Vanity Items From the Past

Devilbiss Vanity Set

Perfume atomizers, or perfumers as they are sometimes called, are those graceful scent containers to which is added the atomizer, usually a top attached to a rubber bulb which is squeezed to spray the scent. Hundreds of these beautifully crafted perfumers were manufactured around the world, but when I think of atomizers,  I think of the giant in the business, the DeVilbiss Company, then of Toledo, Ohio.

The DeVilbiss Co. was a mass producer of atomizers, daubers and vanity sets for more than sixty years. The company founder, Dr. Allen De Vilbiss, invented the medical atomizer in 1887, never dreaming the ugly thing would in time foster a lovely tall, slender perfumer, the pride of the flapper.

DeVilbiss's son Tom, who took over the business in 1905, diversified the company to include perfume atomizers as well as medical ones. After WWI, soldiers came home from France bearing gifts of perfume with ornate dispensers and the atomizer craze took hold. In their heyday in the mid twenties, DeVilbiss sold as many as a million perfumers per year in America alone, not including outlets in Europe, Canada, and Cuba.  They had several hundred employees, plus a few hundred part time local ladies who crocheted the bulb nettings- but the good times didn't last. After fighting a depressed market for many years, the company gave up manufacturing atomizers. The DeVilbiss company is still very much alive in Somerset, Pennsylvania, but now they concentrate on medical equipment- heavy duty compressors and huge paint sprayers.

DeVilbiss did not make the glass for their perfumers, only the hardware, cords, and bulbs for the atomizers. They would design a bottle and send the model to Steuben, Cambridge or Fenton glass factories, where they were produced in the types of glass specified and sent back to DeVilbiss. You've probably seen the Steuben blue and gold Aurene atomizers that are signed DeVilbiss, the Cambridge draped ladies and Fenton's lovely hobnail atomizers.

When the hardware was assembled, the bottles were either script signed, stamped, or a gummed label was attached. Regardless of the glass maker, only the name DeVilbiss was used. The quality and wide variety of style and oclor make these atomizers highly prized today, whether signed or not.

When DeVilbiss started making perfume atomizers, there were many well established  glass companies in the US; but the only available glass ware produced in suitable quantities for perfumers was clear glass salt shakers. They came in a variety of sizes, some being acid etched, others pressed. The collars on these were plain metal. I have one of the earliest of tehse atomizers stamped DeVilbiss Pat Sept 15, 1908. Another of my early salt shaker atomizers has the sale ticket intackt. The price, c.1909, was $1.25. It's hard to believe these quaint little salt shakers were the start of the great DeVilbiss empire.

Many other companies manufactured perfumers, and it takes a lot of study to be able to identify unmarked examples. Both DeVilbiss and Volupti, a French producer of equally lovely examples, used round heads, although the Volupti is slightly flatter on top. Books such as J. North's Perfume, Cologne and Bottles are helpful in illustrating atomizer heads and when they were patented. Rarely will you find a Volupti that fits a DeVilbiss or even a Marfranc, another lovely French bottle, and none seem compatible with the English, Bohemian, or Czechoslovakian bottles unless the threads have been altered.

DeVilbiss in 1928 patented a head that is unmistakably theirs, a new type of atomizer they called 'Air Cushion'.  This consisted of a large metal disc standing perpendicular and attached to the back of the head at a slight angle. To emit perfume one pushed the center of the cushion rather than squeezing a bulb, and like the bulbs, these cushions hardened with age.

Another recognizable DeVilbiss creation is the music box atomizer. The company imported some rather ornate round music boxes that did not turn. Various types of atomizers were mounted on the tops of these boxes. I have two that are stemmed, one amber and one green; the amber one plays 'Ramona,' the top hit song of 1889 and the other plays Yale and Harvard fight songs.

The Volupti Co. of France specialized in feminine items such as elaborate metal mesh evening bags, compacts, and even jewelry. They also made a few perfume atomizers in different price ranges that equaled DeVilbiss in design, craftsmanship, and beauty. One is a gold metal nude standing on a platform, holding a slender green and gold bowl in her upstretched hands. A similar draped lady holding a bowl was made by Cambridge for DeVilbiss.

Although they are increasingly rare, it is still possible to find lovely examples of DeVilbiss, Volupti, Czech, and Bohemian atomizers. Be sure to examine the hardware; make sure the threads are intact on both collar and head. New heads are available in several styles but I prefer stealing an original head from a lesser valued bottle if a replacement is necessary.

It is wonderful to find an all original atomizer, regardless of the condition of the bulb and cord, but it is not imperative to me. If they are American made, they can be replaced; however, most European bottles require a larger cord to fit their bigger cord holders and these are not available.

There are as many varieties of atomizers as there are collectors. Some collect only a certain brand or type; others look for the glass alone; still others want them all. I startedout in the latter category, but now am a selective collector. DeVilbiss, Volupti, Moser, Marfranc, Galle and Richard, manufacturers who made the loveliest bottles, are my preference. I wish all you collectors good hunting-but leave a few for me.

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