The Iowan

Leading Ladies: Lady Head Vases

By Stephanie Finnegan

April showers bring May flowers; and if you were growing up in the 1940s or 1950s or early 1960s, your flowers might have been brought to you courtesy of a “lady head vase.” Manufactured in Japan or in the United States, these novelty holders depicted the “busts” of attractively appointed women, young teen girls, and pretty, fresh-faced children. Additionally, celebrities who were contemporary icons of their day were approximated as lady head vases, too: Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Hedy Lamarr, and Liz Taylor. One of the most common themes was the bond between mothers and daughters: an appropriate connection for the month of May.

When Bonnie Jean Wood, age 63, was hospitalized as a young girl, she was gifted with three full-body vases. They were depictions of a blonde, a brunette, and a black-haired girl. She loved their appearances and knew that she wanted to acquire more. Her family members weren’t large collectors—“Unless you count cars!” she jokes. “My dad was a mechanic and we always had cars that he would buy, fix up, and sell.” Keeping her eyes open, the 12-year-old was determined to collect these vases and decorate her home with their uniquely sophisticated looks.

As the years went by, and Bonnie Jean grew up, she married and had three children of her own: two sons and a daughter. She had bought attention-grabbing vases at auctions and flea markets over the decades, but then she discovered eBay®. When that happened, a collectible floodgate swung open. Wood suddenly saw a whole world of lady head vases that could be purchased. She hadn’t had any of those in her collection, but now they were available for the bidding.

“I was knocked down by their beauty and their lifelike design,” she admits. “I had to have them all! They get in your blood and it is hard to stop with just a few.”

After reading, researching, and learning all she could, the smitten scholar ended up with about “250 items in my personal collection right now. Sometimes, I may sell some of my own to make room for some special ones that I find that I want to keep. I really hate to get rid of any, but I only have so much room.”

In her White Hall, Arkansas, home, Bonnie Jean has two curio cabinets that her children and her husband, John Kenneth Wood, bought for her. These display cabinets are brimming with her beloved lady head vases. “I also have glassed-in cabinets built in my office that I have stuffed full with them! Incidentally, I even have a few with the original plastic flowers, which are very hard to find,” she confides.

“All of these lady head vases, and children and some men, were created for florist shops and made of ceramic or porcelain. The vases were beautiful, but florists had a hard time fitting flowers into their smaller openings. Samples of new designs were sent out to florist shops, and then the florist would order the ones they wanted. Later, the manufacturers made small catalogues to sell from. In my collection, I do have a few of the original samples.”

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, many of the lady head vases could be ordered in bulk by florist shops and other retailers (like Woolworth’s or McCrory’s). The vases would be available in six-packs or 12-packs for a few dollars per dozen or half-dozen. Today, the lady head vases have steadily risen in monetary value.

“You can get a common one for about $30 to $50 per head,” Wood explains. “The price of a head vase depends on its rarity — how many were produced and how many are still around. There are times when these vases can go on up into the thousands.”

Like-minded enthusiasts post blogs and have websites that instruct one another in this close-knit community. Wood — who is retired from Pine Bluff Chemical Activity, where she worked for the U.S. Army — is kept busy with her nine grandchildren and her part-time head vase business (http://www.antiqueheadvases.com/about.php). She sees it as a fantastic hobby that she is thoroughly immersed in and appreciates all the information and knowledge that the aficionados share with one another.

“We have a wonderful convention once a year, and at it, there have been some lady head vases that no has ever seen before. At this point, I think I have seen just about all of them, and I own most of what I want,” shares Wood.

If there are new collectors waiting to throw their hats in the ring, Wood has some first-rate advice for these novices: “Do your homework and ask a lot of questions of collectors and dealers. Be very careful. There are people out now who are making reproduction head vases. If you are an avid collector, you can tell the difference. Keep in mind, if you are a beginning collector, you can get skinned on these imposters. If you are starting out, you can look for lady head vases at garage sales, auctions, and flea markets. But the most reliable way to find them is through true collectors.”

Wood encourages folks to become familiar with the Internet and the online marketplace that is peopled by honest, forthright collectors and enthusiasts. “Contact any of the collectors who are known in this field,” she advocates. “I answer questions for people every day.”

In addition, she suggests that a person who is serious about becoming a bona fide collector should purchase reference books: “These can be great guidelines for them. Kathleen Cole and David Barron have both written some good, reliable books.”

Among her collection, Wood has “every reference book that I can find, including some that are quite old and out of print.” The companies that she and other mavens pursue are a “who’s who” list of post-World War II manufacturing: Inarco, Napco, Haeger, Brinn’s, DeLee, Florence, Holt-Howard, Hull, Lipper and Mann, Norcrest, Reliable, Shawnee, and Betty Lou Nichols, among many others. 

“In my personal collection, I really like the depictions of the children and the early teens, but I do love all of them,” Bonnie Jean relates. 

By the 1970s, the lady head vases had lost their sway. As manufacturing costs increased, the size of the head vases decreased. Also, cost-cutting measures meant the decline in embellishments — no more dangling jewelry, tiaras and crowns, elaborate hair dressing, and “eyelashes to die for.” As bell-bottomed jeans grew wider and wider, the lady head vases became smaller and smaller. Soon, they were of no more use to florists who wanted bigger, more intricate, flashy arrangements. 

Due to nostalgic researchers and collectors like Bonnie Jean Wood, the world of lady head vases has remained sturdy and strong. Despite their fragile composition, these vases live on and encourage curiosity seekers to learn about a bygone world of pearl necklaces, twin sweater sets, floral headbands, and feminine charms that were accentuated with eye shadow, rouge, and face powder. 

The lady head vases are an invitation to visit the past and to be enchanted by its forgotten formality. 

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