Tag Archives: hair

General George Washington, Hairdresser

By Zara Anishanslin 

General George Washington, stationed with the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, was concerned about his troops. More specifically, he was bothered by their looks. It was August of 1782, and the men had recently followed his orders to spruce up their clothing and hats. But Washington still felt there was still something lacking in their appearance.

The remaining problem, in Washington’s opinion, was the men’s hair. To present the proper “martial and uniform appearance,” the soldiers needed to wear their “hair cut or tied in the same manner.” Doing so, as he put it, “would add much to the beauty” of the army.

To beautify his army, Washington wrote a recipe:

two pounds of flour and one-half pound of rendered tallow per hundred men may be drawn from the contractors for dressing the hair.[1]

By flour, of course, Washington meant the light-colored, edible powder made by grinding a grain like wheat and then used for making dough or bread. Throughout the war, flour was an omnipresent necessity on the Continental Army’s ration lists. Along with flour, beef was also a ubiquitous ration item. Rendered tallow’s base ingredient was beef fat, or suet. Rendered tallow could be used for a variety of purposes, from frying food to making candles and soap.

In this case, the tallow would smooth back the soldiers’ hair, providing a sticky base to hold the flour that would then be shaken or puffed onto it. Once stuck to the men’s hair, the flour’s dry powder would lighten it into a more uniform color while keeping it stiffly in place.

Washington’s recipe for beautifying the Continental Army, in other words, was pulverized grain and congealed animal fat.

Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, acc. no. 24.109.88, Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, acc. no. 24.109.88, Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In ordering supplies for the men to smooth and powder their hair, Washington was also dictating that they mimic his own grooming habits. Unlike some other officers in the British, French, and American armies, Washington did not wear a wig. Instead, as his portraits record, his habit was to wear his own hair tied back and powdered.

Washington, however, did not do his own hair. His enslaved valet William “Billy” Lee (also pictured in the Trumbull portrait), or the servant of one of Washington’s aide-de-camp’s dressed it for him.  After brushing it, applying a pomade, and tying it back, Washington’s hair was powdered, using a tool like this puff.

High quality pomades like that used by Washington were made of rendered tallow and—to counteract smells as it went rancid over time—perfumed with fragrances like bergamot, bay leaf, rosewood, or rosewater. Powder, too, although made of ingredients like flour and dried white clay that were less likely to spoil, was also commonly perfumed, with scents like nutmeg, ambergris, rose, or lavender. Perfume and quality aside, the recipe Washington ordered for dressing his army’s hair was not that different from what he used himself.

Still, there is evidence that not all the troops shared their commander’s enthusiasm for powdered hair. Earlier in the war, Continental Army officer Anthony Wayne

observ’d with a good deal of Pain that some of the Regiments have sent their men to the Parade with unpowder’d Hair, long Beards, dirty shirts, and rusty Arms.

“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965, acc.no. 65.692.8. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965, acc.no. 65.692.8. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wayne issued soap and even excused troops from duty so they could appear “fresh shav’d, clean, and well powder’d at troop beating.” For his concern over the troops’  grooming, and his fastidiousness about his own hygiene and hair, Wayne earned the disparaging nickname of “Dandy Wayne.” [2] Painstakingly groomed hair for both men and women was an easy satirical target in the late eighteenth century. Military men like Wayne were not exempt from such attacks.

Satirical humor aside, the variety of pragmatic possibilities flour and tallow held beyond hairdressing may explain why some troops might have been inclined to use these rations for things other than their coiffures. A few months after his general orders for powdering the troops’ hair, Washington wrote of his officers’ “Mortification” at not being able to “invite a French Officer” to “a better Repast than stinkg Whiskey (& not always that) & a bit of Beef without Vegitable.”

FrTroops
“Count de Rochambeau, French General of the Land Forces in America Reviewing the French Troops,” Anonymous, British, 18th century, published by E. Hedges (London, 1781), Engraving. Gift of William H. Huntington, 1883, acc. no. 83.2.1039. Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These visiting French officers likely would have worn wigs or powdered their hair to attend such meals, no matter how poor the fare.  American officers like Washington wished to keep up appearances of all sorts when they entertained the French. At the same time, American enlisted men might well have preferred putting edible hairdressing ingredients in their bellies rather than on their heads. Washington was wise to this potential; officers were required to keep a tally of who used these rations, and to vouch on a “certificate of use” that they were, in fact, used to groom hair.

Footnotes

[1] General Order of General George Washington, August 12, 1782, Head Quarters at Newburgh, New York, in General Orders of Geo. Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Revolution Issued at Newburgh on the Hudson 1782-1783 (Newburgh, NY: News Company, 1909), 35.

[2] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (Yale University Press, 2009), 178, 168.

 

How to grow your beard, Roman style

Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia
Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia

For those who have missed it: male facial hair is currently in fashion. While almost none of my students sported a beard five years ago, it now looks as if they all do (the real proportion is probably 25%, but this is not the point of this post). Beards go in and out of vogue, and have done so for centuries. Thus, the first Roman Emperors, and those who emulated them, were clean shaven or had short beards, but from the middle of the second-century CE, wearing a beard became all the rage.

Ancient medical texts offer us some useful advice on how to care for precious facial hair. Thus Galen (second century CE) and Aetius (sixth century CE) transmit recipes to ‘blacken’ (that is, dye darker) the beard. These involve metallic ingredients that have been calcinated. But perhaps the most interesting series of recipes for the beard come from a treatise attributed to Galen, but not actually by Galen: The Remedies Easily Procured (De Remediis Parabilibus):

Preparations to grow locks of hair and the beard, if hair is falling out: mix beet with myrtle oil and maidenhair (polytrichion) and anoint the hair. Or crush equal amounts of maidenhair (adianton) and gum-ladanum with grape-seed oil, myrtle oil or mastic oil and anoint. Another: gum-ladanum with Aminaean wine and myrtle oil, crush together until it has the consistency of honey and anoint the head in the bath. It is best to use maidenhair (adianton), which some call ‘polytrichion’ (literally, many-hairs), mix a seventh part with gum-ladanum and anoint. (Pseudo-Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 3, 14.502 and 580 Kühn)

Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia
Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia

As the author explains, the plant that works best in promoting beard growth is that called adianton by most people in ancient Greek. Other people, however, called it polytrichion, that is, the ‘many-hair plant’. That plant is a fern known as ‘maidenhair’ in English and Adiantum capillus-veneris L. in botanical Latin. That is, the name in all three languages refers to the alleged effect this plant has on hair growth.

The other interesting ingredient in these pseudo-Galenic recipes is ladanum/ledanum, which is the gum produced by Cistus shrubs. The historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE) is the first to tell us the tale of how this gum was gathered in Arabia, the land of perfumes:

But ledanum, which the Arabians call ‘ladanon’, occurs in manner which is even more amazing [than cinnamon]. For the best smelling thing comes from the most stinky one. For it is found in the beards of he-goats, where it occurs in the same way as gum from a tree. It is used in many perfumes, but the Arabians mostly use it as incense. (Herodotus, Histories 3.112)

Herodotus makes it sound as if ladanum grows in the beards of he-goats. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides, several centuries later, gave a much more plausible account: the gum is so greasy that it sticks to the beards of goats, male or female – Dioscorides is not sexist towards goats! – when they graze on the tree that produces ladanum. Dioscorides also tells us that ladanum prevents hair from falling off, but does not single out beard hair. It is probably the story that ladanum ‘comes from’ the beards of goats that gave rise to the belief that it is somehow good for human beards.

Gents, next time you groom your beard, do give a thought for those Arabian goats growing gum in their goatees!

 

 

 

 

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.