Obsession with hair care is nothing new. Before there was Rogaine and Clairol, women made their own concoctions to “prevent baldness” and “die the hair.”
It’s no secret that women frequently color their hair, but the subject of hair loss is one that women rarely talk about and would never dream of ridiculing the way that men do. But our sex probably spends more money than men on products designed to camouflage or reverse hair loss, and that trend is not at all new, as recipes from a 1772 beauty book demonstrate. Of course, women back then were not spending money to buy the packaged products, but they would have had to invest substantial resources to purchase the ingredients and devote significant time to create the potions.
The beauty book has two titles, the first and most brief of which is The Toilet of Flora. The second, longer title, takes up the entire remainder of the title page. It’s “A Collection of the Most Simple and Approved Methods of Preparing Baths, Essences, Pomatums, Powders, Perfumes, Sweet-Scented Waters and Opiates for Preserving and Whitening the Teeth & c. & c. With Receipts for Cosmetics of Every Kind that can Smooth and Brighten the Skin, give Force to Beauty, and Take Off the Appearance of Old Age and Decay.” This book seems to me like the 18th Century precursor to the 19th Century Snake Oil salesman standing on a soapbox selling miracle cures (which in turn presaged the 20th Century infomercials hyping celebrity beauty systems).
In any case, the Toilet, as I’ll refer to it, has six different “receipts” (recipes) for concoctions to prevent baldness and aid hair growth and only four different methods to color hair. And though one of those hair color receipts refers to blackening the beard, the book does specifically say on the front that it is “for the ladies.” So despite the fact that fashionable ladies wore wigs in the 18th Century, hair loss was still obviously a concern for some of them.
The question was whether any of the remedies in the book could do anything about it. The receipts range from the simple (powder your head with parsley seed three nights in a year) to complex potions requiring a litany of ingredients that might prove difficult to locate. One recipe requires the practitioner to boil and strain bruised southernwood with red wine and sweet oil three times and then add bear grease. It may be a lot of work, but it’s worth it because “this oil quickly makes the hair shoot out.”
Bear grease and southernwood also figure in another recipe which includes the addition of honey, almond oil, ashes of calamus aromaticus roots, balsam of peru and six drachms of labdanum, whatever that is.
As I said, it’s a sensitive topic but I will admit that I, too, am concerned about hair loss and started using an overpriced product that’s designed to regrow hair or at least provide sunscreen for the increasingly large patches of scalp on the top of my head. I could probably save a lot of money by making my own remedies and now I have six recipes to try. But gosh darn it, I seem to be out of bear grease. So I guess I’ll have to hold off for now.
If you’re curious as to the effectiveness, you can download your very own copy of The Toilet for free from Google Books here and try out the recipes for thickening your hair, coloring it black (not a great selection of color choices in the 18th C) or removing it with a homemade depilatory fluid.
Just let me know how it works for you!