Keeping It Clean, Part Four: Bear Grease, Stirachia’s Italian Oil, and Mochrikufsky and Prince’s Russian Oil

We’re taking a bit of a detour from our discussion of cleanliness to talk about hair—who knew it would turn into such an interesting topic?

So we already know that washing your hair meant using regular soap, which tends to strip away too much oil and leave hair dry and straw-like. And since creme rinse/conditioner hadn’t made it on the scene either, our young ladies turned to a number of products to improve their hair. Like, say, bear grease:

H. LITTLE, Perfumer, No.1 Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, acquaints the public, that he has killed a remarkable fine RUSSIAN BEAR the fat of which is matured by time to a proper state. He begs leave to solicit their attention to this Animal, which, for its fatness and size, is a real curiousity. He is now selling the fat, cut from the Animal, in boxes at 2s. 6p. and 5s. each, or rendered down in pots, from One Shilling to One Guinea each. 

Yes, I know–pretty horrible. But bear grease had long been used as a hair improver, and its use lasted late into the century–in an 1879 publication for young ladies, either salad oil (plain vegetable oil) or bear grease are recommended. The procedure seems to have been brushing a small amount through the hair (or rubbing it on with the hands) and using a flannel to remove excess. Sort of a precursor to our leave-in conditioners, in a way.

If bears were a little too much for you, you could always turn to any of the elegantly named oils or pomades on the market, supposed to encourage hair growth as well as health. Note that no ingredients are listed: this is long before law required such a thing, and each product’s components were jealously guarded secrets–many of the ads include warnings against imitators:

The unexampled success of Stiracia’s Italian Oil has met with for upwards of twenty five years, in making the Hair grow, both thick and long, and preventing its fall off,(which it will do in twenty-four hours after illness,) continues to be the most Fashionable Pomade with Ladies of high rank, since powder is out of use; by keeping the head and hair perfectly clean; and making the hardest hair soft as silk, at the same time gives it a most beautiful natural appearance, prevents its turning grey, and even if on the change, will return the hair to its natural colour. The Dowager Lady Smith, of Sything House, near Dorchester, has done the proprietor the high honour of giving him the liberty to say [celebrity endorsement!], that Lady Smith has found great benefit from the use of Oils, both in lengthening and thickening the hair, and in keeping the head and hair perfectly clean, as to render the use of a small-tooth comb unnecessary.

Gulp–are they implying it repels lice?!

USED BY THE ROYAL FAMILY AND LADIES OF THE FIRST CIRCLE. Russia Oil, for promoting the Growth of Hair, and is so great a nourisher as to prevent its turning grey, becoming shaded, or falling off; restores Hair on bald places, if the least roots remain; several Gentlemen that were bald have declared, after using the Russia Oil for three Months, the bald places became covered with Hair. It is superior to any Article for moistening the Hair when dressing, as it prevents the ill effects occasioned by the heat of dressing-irons.

N.B. The Russia Oil will be found infinitely serviceable in restoring the loss of hair on horses, which often proves a great disfigurement to those valuable animals.

I like a good multi-use product! I wonder if Russia Oil contained any bear by-products?

And if these hair products aren’t available, there’s always home-made hair-care treatments, like this one from 1811 in The Mirror of Graces:

[This is a cleanser and brightener of the head and hair, and should be applied in the morning.]
Beat up the whites of six eggs into a froth, and with that anoint the head close to the roots of the hair. Leave it to dry on; then wash the head and hair thoroughly with a mixture of rum and rose-water in equal quantities.

I remember reading somewhere about a beauty salon that used mayonnaise as a hair treatment–not surprising, as the main ingredients of mayonnaise are oil and eggs. So maybe some of these 19th century hair treatments aren’t so far-fetched after all.

Do you know any old-fashioned hair care treatments (preferably not bear-based)?

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Keeping It Clean, Part Four: Bear Grease, Stirachia’s Italian Oil, and Mochrikufsky and Prince’s Russian Oil — 3 Comments

  1. I read in a reprint of a colonial memoir that slathering bear grease on the head was proof posative that the native Americans were slovenly and unclean in body and soul and none should be baptized even if true beliers until they learned to abstain from the filthy practice.

    I don’t remember who wrote it. A vicar of some sort. His life was not interesting or note worthy. But that quote stuck with me.

  2. These days it’s argan oil. Which actually does work on the hair of a woman I know. Makes it unfrizz and not tangle, and doesn’t add weight or grease unless applied too thickly.

  3. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the natives used to rub bear grease on their bodies in the summer to fend off mosquitos and other pests. I always wondered how desperate I would be before using it.

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