Mrs. Headman’s Preparations: Safeguarding Secrets in a Victorian Beauty Business

Jessica P. Clark

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the mid-nineteenth century saw a rise in commercial beauty products aimed at British consumers. A variety of new goods, expanding through the second half of the century, promised to enhance men and women’s complexions, hair, and bodies. But selling secret commercial compounds could be a tricky business given widespread mistrust of beauty products. For some Victorians, including medical commentators, secret compounds signaled potentially deleterious ingredients like mercury. But for others, these same recipes represented exciting opportunities to rid themselves of baldness, rashes, or other unsightly ailments. In this way, mysterious commercial beauty products could both deter and attract the Victorian public, as sources of bodily danger but also transformation.

"Women And Bonnets, England, 1860." From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
“Women And Bonnets, England, 1860.” From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tensions around “secret” commercial recipes did not only shape consumer interest, but also the production practices of those behind the new beautifying goods. British beauty providers in London and beyond understood the power of beauty secrets as they vied for success in the potentially lucrative mid-century market. Commercial recipes were central to their economic livelihood, and many of them actively labored to protect their secrets. This included a small cohort of female beauty entrepreneurs working in London at the mid-nineteenth century, some of whom feature in my book project Beauty Brokers. For them, the possession of a distinct—and exclusive—beauty recipe could mean the difference between business success and failure.

Records suggest that beauty traders developed a number of strategies to protect their recipes from critics, but also  competitors. This could include legal measures against business rivals or the trademarking of product names and logos. But it could also entail more intimate, daily strategies in the management of shop space and employees, something that comes to the fore in the case of London-based trader Agnes Headman. From April 1850, Headman ran a profitable business as a “Hair Restorer and Advisor to Ladies on the State of their Hair” from No. 24 Savile Row. Visitors to the respectable commercial space consulted with Headman before having their hair treated and dressed by Headman’s main assistant, Esther Gaubert. According to the London Times, Headman “was [also] in the habit of performing certain processes on ladies’ hair,” which seems to suggest hair dyeing, a practice of questionable repute.[1]

Map showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4
Map of Mayfair and Soho, showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4

Although Headman offered hairdressing services, most of her profit came from the sale of “Mrs. Headman” products: at the Savile Row shop, through local agents, and via mail order. As this was the heart of her business, records reveal that she took special measures to protect her recipes from falling into the hands of others. For instance, despite her modest operations, Headman reportedly had a separate room at Savile Row devoted exclusively to production. There, she single-handedly made up—or “compounded,” as she dubbed it—her secret preparations, including “Darkening Fluid,” “Rejuvenescent Hair Cream,” and “Botanic Hair Wash and Curling Fluid.” To further protect her work, she strictly regulated access to the compounding room; the only other person granted admission was an illiterate charwoman, Mrs. Bass, who washed out bottles in a neighboring basin. When not in use, Headman kept the room locked to prevent other employees from discerning her methods. She even had her assistant Gaubert sign a binding agreement upon her hiring in 1853, which forbade her from investigating recipe ingredients or  methods of production. This did not stop Gaubert, however, who found herself in the Court of Chancery in 1858, accused of absconding with Headman’s “Book containing the secret recipes” and recreating them in her new business around the corner from Savile Row.[2]  This betrayal suggests that Headman’s precautionary measures were warranted, as someone trading in—and profiting from— the business of secrets.

Often characterized as dangerous by Victorian critics, commercial beauty recipes were in fact very lucrative, something clearly understood by Agnes Headman and other beauty traders. For businesspeople like Headman, secret beauty recipes were key to attracting customers and thus worthy of protective measures. But it was not only consumers who valued the mysteries of her trade. Headman’s own employees sought out her secrets, as they labored side-by-side in a small-scale commercial setting – conditions that, despite her attempts, made her recipes all the more vulnerable to discovery.

 

 

[1] “Vice-Chancellors’ Courts, April 30,” London Times 22982 (1 May 1858): 11.

[2] Ansell v. Ganbert A.39 (1858) UK National Archives, C15/444/A39 (Gaubert’s surname is misspelled in the records).


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