As one 19th century advertisement begins, “in every civilised country throughout the world the human hair is always found to be a subject of peculiar attention.” For centuries, millenia even, we have tugged and twisted our hair into unnatural and often physically improbable shapes, sought luxury and lustre through the addition of all manner of substances and continually attempted to find a tried and true way of stopping the damn stuff from falling out.
The resulting works of art, be they hirsute, sleek or more reminiscent of a desert than a forest, have then been viewed through the discerning and often judgemental eyes of society. Your hair can mark your status, your wealth, your nationality, your personality traits, your identity, whether you want it to or not. It’s no wonder, really, that the care and maintenance of hair elicits such effort from us, is it?
With this in mind, the following images showcase some of the evidence we’ve found – archaeologically and historically – for hair care in the 19th century. Some of it is weird and wonderful, some of it was probably a bit uncomfortable, and some of it we still use today.
Just to set the scene. Note the flattering description of red-heads and the character assassination of brunettes. Image: Mataura Ensign 21/12/1899: 3.
Rowland’s Macassar oil, perpetrator of oily hair and even oilier upholstery everywhere. Macassar oil was a hair restorative and beautifier, first introduced during the late 18th century by a barber named Alexander Rowland. It’s the reason for the term ‘antimacassar’, which refers to the piece of fabric thrown over the top or back of arm chairs to deal with the oily residue hair-conscious people were leaving on furniture all over the place. The advertisement mentions scurf, which is another word for dandruff (I did not know this prior to this post), as well as the restoration of “whiskers, mustachios and eyebrows”. How versatile! Image: New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator 18/02/1843: 1, J. Garland.
May I direct your attention to the highlighted section, in which the application of electricity to the scalp is recommended as a cure for baldness. In all seriousness, though, some of these (maybe not the Venetian visor thing) are still used for the hair today, particularly the use of egg as a shampoo. Image: Tuapeka Times 6/04/1889: 2.
Genuine Russian Bears Grease, made from (presumably) genuine Russian bears. Bears grease derived its popular reputation for hair care from the fact that since bears were hairy, rubbing their fat on your own head would also promote the growth of hair. Don’t be too quick to laugh, I’m sure similarly ridiculous misunderstandings of cause and effect are still around today. It was initially made from actual bears, although some later versions used anything from goose grease to lard as the base of the product. To promote the authenticity of their product, some hairdressers used to keep live bears, bear skins, or something that they could pass off as bear skins in the shop windows to convince customers that their bear’s grease was totally the genuine thing. Image: J. Garland.
Home remedies. While some of these might sound like risky combinations of chemicals (camphor!), many of them do actually have hair care properties. Sub-carbonate of potass is potassium carbonate, used to make soaps. Camphor, used to make mothballs and other pest deterrents, as well as embalming fluid, is also an active ingredient in anti-itch gels and various medicinal products applied externally. Still, maybe don’t try these at home. Image: Daily Southern Cross 5/12/1856: 3.
Dr Frampton’s Pomatum, by Price & Co., Her Majesty’s perfumers. For those with unruly hair, unhealthy hair or hair that just won’t stay on the head at all. Pomatum was a common hair product during the 19th century and well into the 20th century (also known as pomade). It was usually made of a scented grease or lard and used to smooth down the hair (or moustache, presumably). Articles towards the end of the century, when the use of pomatum had become slightly less widespread, speak disparagingly of resulting “locks saturated with strongly-scented grease” (Grey River Argus 31/10/1882: 4). Image: J. Garland.
Erm. Maybe also don’t try this at home. Image: Southland Times 12/02/1885: 4.
A Bay Rum bottle, complete with label denoting it a “refreshing and invigorating tonic for the hair.” Bay Rum became increasingly popular towards the end of the 19th century, although it was in use from much earlier. Although primarily marketed as a hair product, it was also used for a variety of other personal grooming issues, from skin beautification to the relief of tired feet. Image: J. Garland.
Some uses for claret and potatoes that you may not have heard of before…Image: Press 31/07/1896: 2.
A hair comb, made from vulcanite or vulcanised rubber. Regular brushing and combing of the hair was one of the most frequent recommendations in 19th century newspapers and magazines for the encouragement of healthy hair. Not so unusual to us, this one. Image: G. Jackson.
One thing that was notably different to general hair care now was the recommended frequency of washing. Most articles suggested that it be washed, at the most, once a week and recommended intervals of several weeks to a month as optimal. Shampoo was also not as integral to hair washing as it is now, with a lot of articles recommending various oil and water concoctions or simply the use of warm water. The considerations given to the health concerns of wet hair also speak to the differences between our lives now and the lives – and environment – of those in the 19th century, who did not have the luxury of heat pumps and hair dryers. Image: Auckland Star 17/03/1899: 7.
Alexander Barry’s Tricopherous is probably the most common hair related artefact that we find on 19th century archaeological sites. Composed largely of alcohol and oil, it promised all manner of miracles when it came to the beauty and restoration of the hair, including the cure of baldness. It was, however, also used in place of pomatum as a far less greasy tool with which to style the hair. Image: G. Jackson.
To finish off, while I’m sure that “obeying the laws of health” can’t help but aid the vitality of your hair, as someone with very long hair who consumes their fair share of wine, tea and coffee, I have to say that the second paragraph is very definitely not true. Image: Star 6/02/1897: 3.