Dyeing to Impress: Hair Products and Beauty Culture in Nineteenth-Century America

By Sean Trainor

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“Philadelphia Fashions,” 1831. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery ID: 802063.

Readers of a certain age will surely recall their first gray hair. Perhaps they can even relate to the panic that absorbed the nameless protagonist of an April 1831 story in The Ladies’ Magazine. Not yet twenty-eight, the tale’s heroine “was shocked at the visible approach of Time, and resolved, if possible, not to submit to his encroachment.” Rushing to a fancy goods dealer, “Miss Raven,” purchased a bottle of Imperial Hair Restorer, “warranted to give the hair a beautiful glossy appearance, and restore it to its pristine color, without failure or danger.”

Days after applying the restorative, however, Miss Raven awoke to a shocking transformation; her beautiful locks were “changed to an equivocal hue, bearing a near resemblance to the dark changeable green of the peacock’s feathers.” And where she had previously enjoyed charming curls, she now found stiff, straight bristles.

Such, according to The Ladies’ Magazine, were the fruits of vanity. “Artifice,” argued editor Sarah Josepha Hale, rarely enhanced women’s beauty or character, and European fashion foretold doom for Americans’ morals and health (note the word ‘Imperial’ in the restorer’s name). “Coloring the Hair,” in other words, was a didactic tale warning against female conceit.

But it also highlighted the very real dangers associated with nineteenth-century hair products – dangers made all too apparent in the pages of N. Belcher’s Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book (1868). Ostensibly intended to provide hair-care professionals with the know-how to make men and women’s hair products for themselves, Belcher’s Recipe Book now serves as a veritable paean to human endurance: evidence of our surprising ability to survive prolonged exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, and other horrifying toxins.

Alas, full descriptions of the nostrums contained in Belcher’s manual would consume more space than this post affords. An overview of choice recipes therefore must suffice. Consider, for instance, one of Belcher’s favorite hair dyes, made from cream of tartar, lard, sal ammoniac, and silver nitrate. While sal ammoniac, menacing name notwithstanding, is perfectly safe, silver nitrate is not. The latter will stain one’s hair. But it will also burn one’s skin, and, if absorbed in sufficient quantities, permanently dye one’s internal organs. Still another recipe calls for “proto-nitrate of mercury.” And perhaps the worst of Belcher’s dyes unites soft water and alcohol with spirits of turpentine, sulfur, and sugar of lead. One can only imagine its effects on the body.

Indeed, throughout the Recipe Book one finds an astonishing array of toxins: from cantharides – an abortifacient made from the crushed carcasses of Spanish Flies – to calomel (mercury chloride), concentrated ammonia, and arsenic – which Belcher used to remove unwanted hair (though he admits its effects could occasionally prove fatal).

The ill-effects of Belcher’s products, however, were not limited to their toxicity. One of his choice depilatories, for instance – made of lime, water, and “sulphureted [sic] hydrogen gas” – was famous not just for its hair-removing properties, but for its “disgusting smell.” Other concoctions were made with considerable quantities of animal fats, including lard, veal and bear fat, beef and mutton suet, and spermaceti. On sweltering summer days, these compounds likely attracted insects. And despite a number of fragrant additives – from vanilla, lavender, and rose water to mace, cloves, and camphor – they almost certainly reeked like sin.

Trainor_Archive Org_Bogles Hair Dye
“Bogles Hair Dye” in Walton’s Vermont Register and Farmers’ Almanac for 1862 (Montpelier: S. M. Walton, 1862). Image courtesy of Archive.org: https://ia902508.us.archive.org/28/items/vermontyearbooky186269ches/vermontyearbooky186269ches.pdf

Nor were these the misbegotten inventions of some obscure crank. Belcher assured his readers, not unconvincingly, that the recipes he offered were in fact the formulas for some of the nineteenth-century’s most famous hair products, including the well-known wares of Joseph Christadoro, Edward Phalon, William Bogle, and “Professor” O.J. Wood (prolific advertisers, all).

Belcher leaves unstated how he got his hands on these recipes. Perhaps they were well-known secrets in hairdressing circles. Or perhaps the book was simply the result of the period’s lax intellectual property laws.

Whatever its origins, Belcher’s Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book sheds invaluable light on the lengths that nineteenth-century Americans were willing to go in the service of beauty. From green hair and tinted scalps to mercury poisoning and death, men and women took extraordinary risks to look good. It’s time that scholars took the period’s beauty culture as seriously as Americans themselves did.

 


Sean Trainor is a Ph.D. Candidate in History & Women’s Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled “Hair: A History of Men’s Grooming in the Urban United States, 1800-1865.” He tweets @ess_trainor.


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