In these sadly transient days, few local families bother to pass down heirlooms, or else the number of descendants that items must be split up among makes meaningful retention of a single collection impossible. Consequently, many once-prized personal items eventually end up treasured once more – but in the hands of strangers, via backstreet salerooms. Two once-commonplace household staples, that are now keenly sought-after collector’s items in Hong Kong’s antique shops, are period dressing tables, and the highly-prized table-top objects that once comprised their owner’s most personal possessions. Both provide revealing glimpses of gradually changing tastes and lifestyles over the past century. As with other forms of domestic material culture from earlier times, such as silver or porcelain tea and coffee services, crystal cocktail pieces, or ivory-mounted tobacco or opium smoking apparatus, elaborate dressing table sets reveal much about the people who acquired and valued them. Dressing table sets were often accumulated over time, as annual birthday present items for teenage girls and young women, and also formed part of a wedding trousseau. Materials used, relative quality of workmanship, and overall artistry varied significantly. In dowry cultures, these items were inherently valuable and formed part of a bride’s personal property, which she brought to her new life from her family home upon marriage. As such, they remained firmly her possessions, to redeem in case of financial disaster. From these seemingly ephemeral items, the lives, times, and personal circumstances of their former owners, and how general fashions and tastes have evolved – and in some instances, sharply deteriorated – over recent generations can be explored. Hair brushes and combs in various sizes were perennially popular dressing table items. In treaty-port China and Hong Kong, these were often silver-backed, and heavily inlaid with intricately-wrought auspicious designs and lucky motifs. Brushes were usually made from high-quality pig or badger bristles, while comb tines were crafted from ivory or bone, before Bakelite and other early forms of plastic came into common use. As well as sterling silver, ivory or bone were used for backing material, along with tortoiseshell and carved sandalwood; these were intended to be a lifetime purchase. Similar dressing table sets also existed for men, usually hair dressing sets, with clothes brushes and shaving gear, arranged in travelling cases made from high-quality, patterned leather, such as pigskin, snake or alligator. Scent-bottles were another common dressing table item in the days before mass-produced colognes, toilet waters and concentrated perfumes became more desirable than old-fashioned essential oils and attars, which were purchased from an apothecary’s shop and then decanted into appropriate bottles at home. Mirrors, mostly bevel-edged, were essential; whether fitted to the dressing table or long-stemmed hand mirrors, these were used as much for checking hard-to-see places, making sure that stocking seams were straight, and petticoat edges weren’t dangling below a skirt’s hem, as for powdering one’s nose. Cloths and doilies were an essential addition to any respectable dressing table. Swatow cutwork linen was particularly prized; first introduced to China in the 19th century by American missionaries, these techniques included drawn work, faggoting, crochet and various embroidery forms. Like the items that once were arranged on them, these old-fashioned fabrics have also become curiosity items for collectors; high-quality examples command correspondingly high prices. Where were all these personal items arranged? On a dedicated dressing table in the bedroom, of course. These substantial pieces of furniture, usually fitted with angled mirrors and with a cushioned stool in front – much like the sets once arranged upon them – are now seldom-seen relics of more spacious days. Few modern apartment dwellers – especially in Hong Kong – have room for more than a rudimentary version – for most people, a wall-mounted bathroom cabinet with a mirror and some shelves must suffice.