Tag Archives: nineteenth century

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

By Sean Trainor

index.php
“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.

Ironclad Apple Duff: Exploring Recipes from the American Civil War

By Jessica Eichlin and Amanda E. Herbert

USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.
USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Food rations during wartime do not have the reputation for being delicious, fresh, or even edible, and this was especially true during the American Civil War.  Fought from 1861-1865, the war disrupted supply lines across the United States, making food difficult to acquire for soldiers and citizens alike.  When Union (northern) and Confederate (southern) troops were receiving rations, these usually included hardtack, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal; when soldiers were lucky, this rather grim diet was supplemented by small amounts of condiments such as molasses, salt and pepper, and sugar; beverages such as milk, coffee, or tea; and vegetables such as rice or hominy, dried beans or peas, and “fresh” (although frequently desiccated) vegetables.  And whenever they were able, soldiers and sailors foraged for food, or traded with locals – both free and enslaved – in order to survive.

Finding and issuing nutritious, reliable rations was made even more difficult by the new military equipment that was developed during the Civil War.  Although European countries had begun developing ironclad ships in the late 1850s, American shipbuilders were not prompted to create this innovative type of ship until the American Civil War.  The South was the first to construct their ironclad (the CSS Virginia), followed quickly by the North.  The Union’s USS Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was ironclad as well as semi-submersible: it was the first ship with its living quarters and engines entirely below the waterline.  The ship was nicknamed “Ericsson’s Folly” and “cheesebox on a raft” as no one thought it could float, let alone sail into battle.  Because the sailors lived almost entirely underwater, provisioning them and keeping them healthy proved to be a difficult undertaking.

Primary source documents written by the sailors on board these ships help to reveal important details about the history of Civil War food.  George Geer, a First-Class Fireman from Troy, New York who was stationed aboard the Monitor, corresponded with his wife Martha throughout the war, describing skirmishes, interactions with other sailors and officers, and especially the food on board ship.  Prior to enlisting, Geer had been unemployed and in debt: as he and his wife had two children, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of his letters focused on food.  But if Geer thought that joining the Union navy would keep him well-fed, his hopes were soon dashed.  His letters are full of funny, sarcastic comments about sailor’s rations.  In regards to the rock-like hardtack crackers, which were a staple of their diet, Geer said that the sailors could “eat as many crackers as [they] may wish which for me is usuly one.”  When the men were given pork, Geer was dismayed that “it is of the Lardy kind and no body pretends to eat it…the balance [is] given to the Fishes.”  Discussing bean soup, which the sailors consumed three times every week, Geer noted wryly that he was “tempted to strip off my shirt and make a dive and see if there realy is Beens in the Bottom.”

George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor.  Image courtesy of the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia.
George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor. Image courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

Geer’s colorful discussion of the food on board the USS Monitor did not stop with mere description.  In his letters, he sometimes provided his wife with recipes for the foods that made up the sailors’ rations.  In order to make navy-style tea, he told his wife to take “abut three times as much of black Tea or Grass as you would take to make a cup of Tea for you and me and about a tea cup full of that muscovada shugar that has such a bad taste.”  The most detailed recipe inscribed by Geer was for a dessert called Apple Duff.  Duff was a steamed or boiled pudding which was consumed frequently in the nineteenth century.  It was simple to make and contained cheap ingredients, usually just flour, water, and a handful of fruit.  Geer told his wife that he would “give you the recpt and you can try it.”  He told her to “take ½ lb Flour to each person and wet it until it is a thick paste then put in one ounce [o]f Dride Apples to each person.”  The apples, he noted, included “cores and dirt” and his wife should add them to the dough “without cutting them up or Washing them.”  This mixture was to be put “in a Bag over night and boil then in the morning until it is about half done through then cut it up with a knife so as to make it as heavy as poseable.”  The resulting lump of half-cooked dough was hard to digest, but it was filling – for although most puddings “will be apt to work out of your stomac in the course of time,” Geer joked, “this Duff is wanted to stay.”

*****
Interested in the sources used in this post?  You can find them here:

  1. “What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?” Civil War Preservation Trust, accessed 13 April 2014. http://www.civilwar.org/education/pdfs/civil-war-curriculum-food.pdf
  2. “Duff,” in The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 259.
  3. “Letter No 2,” George S. Geer Family Papers, 1862-1995, MS010, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
  4. A.A. Hoehling, Thunder at Hampton Roads (New York: Prentice Hall, 1976).

*****

Jessica Eichlin is a senior History Major at Christopher Newport University.  She found these documents while working as an intern at the Mariner’s Museum and Mariner’s Museum Library, both in Newport News, Virginia.  Jessica is on Twitter @jesseich