By Helen King
I was recently going through the family papers — a mysterious collection of apparently random, but presumably precious, items! — and was struck by one I’d overlooked before. It’s a printed envelope containing a hand-written remedy for hair loss. When I last looked at this — which was probably when I inherited this particular batch from great-aunt Emma in the early 1980s — I hadn’t read it properly, and I hadn’t noticed that it has a date.
The outside links it to Mrs King of 24 Denmark Road; that’s in SE London. Inside, on blue paper, is a handwritten prescription. It doesn’t say what it is for, but on the back of the envelope someone has written ‘Dr Barnes (?) Hair Prescription’. The prescription lists ammonia, sweet almond oil, rosemary oil and cantharidine. The person prescribing this has insisted ‘Cantharidine and no other preparation to be used’, which is still used in some hair oils today.
This seems to be a pretty typical remedy for hair loss. Liquor ammoniae fortis and aromatic spirit of ammonia and the cantharidine were irritants, intended to stimulate the circulation on the scalp, with the other ingredients added to make the product smell rather better. There is also ‘fl. lotis’, but this seems to have been added; the ink is a little less dark and it is not set flush with the other ingredients in the list.
The prescription was taken to be filled on at least three occasions; there are three pharmacists’ stamps, all from the London area. One is dated 11 November 1890, thus telling us when this prescription was used. Something has been cut off the top right-hand corner; I’ve no idea what, when, or why.
Of course, just because this prescription is in a Haden’s pharmacy envelope doesn’t mean it was issued there. And other factors lead me to conclude that it was simply kept in this envelope for convenience. Why? Because on the back of the envelope there is an advertisement for three ‘Products of Genatosan, Ltd’: the tonic Sanatogen, the throat tablet Formamint and the ‘safe brand of aspirin’, Genasprin. Genatosan Ltd was set up only during World War I. This later date fits with my great-grandmother’s address; the family is not registered at 24 Denmark Street in the 1891 census, but was there by 1901, and still there in 1911. In 1901, Mary Anna King, aged 39, from Brockford in Suffolk, was living there with her husband Arthur King, ten years older than her, with their four children, aged from newborn to 7. A visitor was also present at the census: Caroline Steggall, aged 36, from Broxford.
By 1911, things were very different. Now, Mary is listed as a widow, with her four children still there; two at school, one working as a dressmaker and another at a ‘jam and potted meat factory’. Caroline Steggall, needlewoman, lives permanently with them, and her identity is clearer; she is now listed as Mary’s sister. I also have a letter written by ‘your ever loving mother, M A King’ to Leonard, her youngest son and my grandfather, from 24 Denmark Road, dated February 21, 1920; so I know she was still there then. In it, Mary wishes him a happy birthday and exhorts him ‘not to leave God out of your life but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path’.
So the family starts to be fleshed out. But what about this recipe? Handwritten, but in an envelope advertising patent medicines, it sits between two traditions. Maybe, as the envelope does not match the recipe, it was not for my great-grandmother at all, but for a man of the family? In 1890, Mary King was only in her twenties. Was she suffering hair loss? Or was this prescription issued to Arthur, and she kept it after his death because it reminded her of him; perhaps, of his special rosemary and almond smell?