Last week I wrote about an intriguing perfume vending machine that was up for auction on eBay. With "nips" or samples of the perfumes Evening in Paris, Silhouette, and Silent Night — all for the price of a quarter — the perfume vending machine was a tantalizing artifact telling us about perfume's status on the American market in the 30s.
In a Twitter conversation I had with Michelle Krell Kydd of GlassPetalSmoke, I told her I found the idea of a perfume vending machine so charming because it combined luxury with a dimestore aesthetic. I was interested, I said, in the history of perfume vials and samples, and she said it sounded like a "future blog post brewing." Well, you were right, MKK! I did a little online research, and the following is what I found. I will update it as I find out more.
First off, eBay auctions can be vast repositories of information. Two items up for auction now, in particular, told me a lot about perfume and marketing via nips.
Both auctions, for hard plastic cases housing nips of various perfumes, were actually promotional gifts given out by companies that had nothing to do with beauty or luxury.
In one case, the company name printed on the back of the perfume gift reads "Flint Telephone Employees Credit Union"(!) How, er, uh...glamorous! I guess if you worked for Flint Telephone back in the day, you might need a little Shocking by Schiaparelli or Indiscret by Lucien Lelong to throw a some fantasy into your life!In another auction, a similar promotional perfume gift also included 2 1/2 inch (plastic?) tubes of Dana's Ambush and Tabu perfumes housed in paper "purse packs." They resemble the tubes that Alberto VO5 hot oil treatment comes in now.
One commenter who calls herself Digger had this to say to a reader with a question about nips on Bottle Books, a website devoted to information on old bottles:
"What the person has is called 'Nips' which was a patented name for a method of perfume sampling from the 1930-1950s. The tubes were made of something called plastene or sometimes glass. The ends were broken off and the perfume inside was then one use per tube. Many perfumers used them just for their own scents and they were also put up in cardboard tubes in thousands of different applications from Chevy dealers to motels to airlines, all who used this form of perfume sample. They came color-coded on the tips so if you used one that was pink it was Shocking by Schiaparelli...I have a set of Nips as suit card indicators in bakelite for playing bridge that are just quite unusual."
Say what?! "A set of Nips as suit card indicators in bakelite for playing bridge"?! Unusual indeed. I need to see a picture of this!
A lot is written by marketers about the so-called "democratization of luxury," but to me these perfume samples in unusual settings (like tiny representations of poet Wallace Stevens' "a jar in Tennessee") exemplify it. Instead of Alexander McQueen selling poorly-made skirts for Target, how about Serge Lutens' latest fragrance sold in nips at Walmart (or Walgreen's or CVS) for a dollar a pop? That is the "democratisation de luxe" to me!
They hardly even give out sample vials anymore. I receive them when the salesperson does a cold assessment of me based on what I am wearing (or what purse I am carrying) and then deigns to find me worthy of a sample. This happened recently at the fancy perfume section at Nordstrom's in San Francisco; I got a sample of Fracas. And just a few weeks ago, a generous Kilian rep at Saks in Costa Mesa gifted me with samples from his entire line — perhaps because I knew what oud was? I guess it's not affordable to hand out samples anymore, but how many nascent perfume-lovers may never be born because they don't actually have the juice with them to try on at home?
In any case, I'm not sure when the Nips transitioned into those glass vials, but I'll let you know when I find out!