Lady head vases can be found for sale online, with prices for more common pieces ranging from $10 to $100. (Image courtesy of eBay)
A Head Above The Rest
Lady head vases brought a touch of class to one’s home
by Corbin Crable
They added a dash of finesse to any floral arrangement. An instant conversation starter, they exuded style and fashion – above the neck, that is.
Lady head vases – also referred to as ‘lady head planters’ — were hot items in well-decorated homes for several decades, especially in postwar America. Now, they’re found in cyberspace on auction house websites, with some whose beauty is only matched by their dollar value.
Dressed in their Sunday best
The lady head vases with which most of us are familiar began to pop up around stores in the 1930s, but they had been around for more than 50 years before that, getting their start in Europe. By the 1930s, they had made their way to American shores, a symbol of what every lady desired to be.
“These ladies exude glamour, with their perfectly coiffed hairdos; big, lush eyelashes and ruby lips, elegant fashions and sometimes adorned with pearls or other jewelry, a stylish hat or gloves – or sometimes all three accessories,” according to a February 2023 article on Antique Trader.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy
This vase, made by Inarco, features First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wearing a veil. Image courtesy of eBay
Floral companies used the dainty, detail-rich pieces to sell more of their smaller bouquets, though they were just as readily found in five-and-dime stores (a pack of six could be purchased for just a few dollars). After World War II, lady head vases were one of the numerous products made in Occupied Japan by companies with names like Napco and Reubens.
We have American artist Betty Lou Nichols to thank for bringing the home décor trend to American shores. Nichols opened her own ceramics studio in 1945, adopting her own unique style, too.
“Her distinctive vases tend to be women in Gay ’90s-style, with big hats and big curls, perfect cheekbones and skin. They are painted in soft hues such as periwinkle, plum and mint,” the Antique Trader article reads. “The trademark Betty Lou look: to-die-for eyelashes lowered in perpetual coquetry. She produced thousands of heads, creating the basic shapes from a mold, as other makers did, but she was the only maker who added handmade details such as ruffles, lace and bows made of clay.”
Manufacturers such as Nichols and Henry Holt quickly gained popularity. Those makers included marks on the bottom of their vases, though some, according to Antique Trader, used a label made of foil or paper instead.
Lady head vases
Lady head vases can be found in a variety of sizes and could be found at stores like Woolworth’s in packs of six or 12. (Image courtesy of Randolph Street Market)
Betty Lou Nichols lady head vase
An example of a Betty Lou Nichols lady head vase. (Image courtesy of eBay)
Marilyn Monroe head vases
Marilyn Monroe head vases are among the most rare, with some valued at several thousands of dollars. (Image courtesy of Randolph Street Market)
From Miranda to Marilyn
Still highly collectible, the vases are as varied in their style as in their monetary value (usually between $10 and $100 for more common examples, and up to $1,000 or more for rarer versions). You can find women hailing from exotic countries to women in their finest gloves, pearls and curls, and with full, pouty, painted lips. The women portrayed in lady head vases tend to be older, however, though a few rare examples of younger, teenaged heads exist.
You won’t only find glamorous, unnamed women among those for sale (though many did have names, as one will discover when finding signed pieces, especially those created by Nichols). Lady head vases also portrayed celebrities of the day, including Lucille Ball, Carmen Miranda, Grace Kelly, and more (one Marilyn Monroe vase in excellent condition has been valued at $3,800). Some vases portraying male celebrities such as Elvis Presley even hit the market, but these are exceedingly rare.
Not just for floral arrangements
Not just for floral arrangements, lady head vases are beautiful vessels for everything from small succulents to mascara brushes. (Image courtesy of Rotary Botanical Gardens)
These gorgeous relics can sell for anywhere from $10 to $1,000, but most sell for between $15 and $100,” writes Rose Heichelbech for the antique collectors blog dustyoldthing.com. “Many collectors are willing to pay $50 for a head vase they don’t have yet even if it’s not a rare or celebrity bust. The market can vary by location but there’s no doubt that, for those who collect, these are valuable pieces that have earned a place on many a display shelf and vanity.”
Not just for flowers
Their uses were varied, too, notes antiques blog litle-things.com.
“Many vases gradually varied in style and usage,” author Angela Chang writes in a 2018 littlethings.com article, “and were made, for example, into umbrella holders, lamps, jewelry holders, and even wall pockets.”
By the 1970s, these glamorous girls began to fall out of style, and mass production of the vases ceased. Interest in these pieces began to resurface in the mid-1990s, however, and with it, a new generation of collectors.
Of course, like any vintage collectible, there are basic features to look for when trying to determine whether the vase your grandmother passed down to you is actually worth anything. Those include:
- Condition: Is the vase free of cracks or chips? Staining also can negatively affect value.
- Rarity: Although vases in the shape or style of ladies are common, vases portraying celebrities, characters or even men are much more rare and thus worth more.
- General attractiveness: Small details in the painting of the item will set it apart from its generic versions (and there are many, to be sure).
- Kitsch: If it’s especially fun or funky – again, unlike its more common counterparts – it’s likely to have more value.
Unnerving if display multiple lady head vases together
At least one collector jokingly advises not to display multiple lady head vases together, as they might appear a tad unnerving. (Image courtesy of Midtown Mercantile Merchants)
Shawnee in the 1950s
This vase was manufactured by Shawnee in the 1950s. (Image courtesy of Etsy)
The head collector
And, like any worthwhile collectible, numerous printed resources exist to help the serious collector navigate his or her hunt for the ideal item. One of them, Schiffer Publishing’s “Head Vases Etc: The Artistry of Betty Lou Nichols,” includes more than 600 photos of Nichols collectibles (author Maddy Gordon calls Nichols’ lady head vases the ‘Rolls Royce’ of the category. Gordon herself edits the international Head Hunters newsletter and organizes an annual lady head vase convention. She is believed to have the largest lady head vase collection in the world, at more than 3,000 pieces).
“To me, (Nichols’) are the most outstanding of all,” Gordon said in a 1996 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “It’s a shame she didn’t get all the recognition she deserved while she was around to appreciate it.”
For those with smaller collections than Gordon’s, the lady head vase is a simple but eye-catching piece that adds a touch of elegance to any floral arrangement. Just try not to overdo it, cautions Janice Peterson of the horticulture blog Rotary Botanical Gardens.
“Although I enjoy collecting head vases, I try to not to own too many or group too many together,” Peterson wrote in a 2017 post on the website. “There is something a bit eerie about too many eyes watching you, and their posturing make them seem a bit judgmental!”
Earlier vase from the 1940s
This earlier vase from the 1940s is lacking in the detail for which other, more contemporary lady head vases are known. (Image courtesy of Ruby Lane)