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Christmas Gift Guide

Kiss of death

The perfectly prepared lady

Not just a compact

Do you have the time?

Creative thinking

Bullets are a girl's best friend

According to the International Spy Museum, this lipstick case disguises a cunningly wrought 4.5mm single-shot pistol, and was designed for use by KGB operatives during the Cold War. This particular gun was confiscated at an American checkpoint in West Berlin.

Related story: Saluting 'Marvel's Agent Carter' and the sci-fi forties

Caption by / Photo by International Spy Museum

In order to make sure operatives' equipment could remain undetected, the CIA would design entire outfits to incorporate gadgets seamlessly. "America's intelligence officers can safely collect intelligence in hostile environments because they know that quality and craftsmanship have been "built in" to their appearances, leaving no traces to alert the enemy," says the CIA.

The agency does not specify which parts of the above ensemble incorporate spy equipment. It's possible that the jewellery contains cameras or listening devices, and that the purse could be used to carry sundry relevant items; however, the cigarette packet in her hand is almost definitely a concealed camera.

Caption by / Photo by CIA

A lady's powder compact makes an excellent spy tool. Even today, it wouldn't be an unexpected item to find in her bag. This version, made by the CIA for its female operatives, looks like a normal compact. However, tilted just so, the mirror reveals codes engraved into its surface.

Caption by / Photo by CIA

This watch -- called the Notora, from manufacture Favre-Leuba -- dates back to around the 1920s, and was probably more a curiosity than a spy gadget -- but it's still pretty fascinating. The rectangular case -- a style more particular to ladies' watches than to mens' -- contains a Swiss-made mechanical winding movement, and two extra, seemingly pointless, lugs. When the wearer pushes the button at six o'clock, the entire watch face lifts up, revealing a scroll of paper inside, on to which could be inscribed secret messages. The two extra lugs scroll the paper back and forth.

Caption by / Photo by Heirloom Gallery

The best spies are the ones who can improvise, who can use their environment and normal, everyday objects to their advantage. Take Anna Strong from the American Revolution. She would use her laundry as a signal to the Culper Spy Ring -- certain garments and linens hung upon the line would convey a certain message, all without having to speak face-to-face. Harriet Tubman, Union spy during the American Civil War, used chickens and even a newspaper to create a diversion and disguise herself from being recognised. Molly Rinker, also during the Revolution, would perch herself on a rock to watch the comings and goings of theBritish. She would then slip messages containing this information into balls of yarn, which would later be "found" by Washington's troops.

Caption by / Photo by Paul Hermans, CC BY-SA 3.0

During the 19th Century, personal protection devices became all the rage: Miniature pistols, such as derringers, and cunningly concealed firearms in other wearables, such as, say, a pocket watch -- or even cutlery (there's another picture here). So this c.1870 seven-shot pepper-box revolver -- named the Femme Fatale, crafted out of German silver -- is unlikely to have been a spy weapon so much as a device a lady could conceal about her person in event she should need to protect herself.

Still, the idea of a lady spy carrying one of these is utterly delightful.

If we've whetted your appetite for the history of women in espionage, you can read some first-hand accounts here, and find out more about women who spied on the National Women's History Museum website.

Related story: Saluting 'Marvel's Agent Carter' and the sci-fi forties

Caption by / Photo by Gregg Martin Auctions