Of pomades & bear’s grease

Modern manscaped metrosexuals were not the first to males to use complex cosmetics. Ralph Tapping explores historic examples of male hair-care products 

Bear’s grease was popular in England from the seventeenth century as a hair dressing and claims for its efficacy in promoting healthy growth of hair were widely believed. It is doubtful that there was any truth in these claims, but certainly bears have never appeared to suffer from baldness. 

Bear’s grease was in fact merely a form of perfumed hair dressing.  The fashion of wig-wearing, imported from France, was widespread in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but after the French Revolution made the wearing of powdered wigs unpopular, men grew their natural hair long and bunched at the back.  It was often powdered by the gentlemen of the day – with blue powder from about 1770 and later with red powder. 

When a tax was imposed on this powder in 1845, there was an outcry against this, and from 1845 onwards it is noticeable that the use of bear’s grease and other pomades became popular.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, small ointment pots were used for bear’s grease, with waxed paper or parchment tops. These were often printed over the glaze or hand painted with the name of the manufacturer and sometimes with a picture of a bear. From the 1860’s onwards the lids were usually ceramic, initially printed in black and white and later in colour. These lids are prized by collectors, who generally found them by digging in former refuse dumps. In that era the screw cap jar had not yet been invented, so pot lids and pots became separated in the dumps, which is why so few pots were found complete.

The most commonly found bear’s grease pot lid is that of James Atkinson of 24 Old Bond Street, London.  The reason for this is that although Atkinson was selling bear’s grease in London as early as 1799, the company he founded continued to sell long after most other companies had ceased manufacture. 

When he first commenced business, the young James Atkinson was said to have chained a bear to the pavement grating  outside his first shop in Gerrard Street, Soho, in order to attract attention to his trade, and the image of this muzzled and chained bear survives on his pot lids to remind us of this (pictured).

Many thousands of bears were killed in the production of bear’s grease.  Atkinson ordered his grease from Petersburg in Russia, as it was usually the brown Russian bears that were used, although sometimes the Canadian Black Bear was used and one or two manufacturers used Polar Bears.

Not all hair greases were made from poor Bruin however.  From fragments of pot lids excavated from mid-Victorian sites, it is known that reindeer and buffalo were also used and one lid with a picture of a lion, entitled “pomade du lion” suggests the use of lion. One French lid advertises “Genuine Russian Goose Grease for the Hair” and several companies issued lids for pots decorated with bulls, suggesting the use of beef marrow.  As bear’s grease became more expensive, there is little doubt that pork fat and beef fat were used as dilutants.

Non-animal pomades

In addition to bear’s grease, pomades were available which were not of animal extraction. 

These were used by men for their hair and whiskers and several pomades were described as Circassian Cream or Nutritive Cream, which were mainly for the ladies. 

A pomade is a scented ointment, originally used on the face, but by the eighteenth century was more often used on the scalp and the hair.  

Pomades and hair creams were in use slightly later than was bear’s grease and finds suggest that bear’s grease was becoming unpopular by the 1880’s and by the early 1900’s more modern types of hair dressings such as oils and lotions of non-animal content had been introduced, for which all Russian bears must be forever grateful.

By the mid-1900’s creams such as Brylcreem were in common use, since superseded by the hair gels used today.     

Acknowledgement: Pot lids from the private collection of Perth Pharmacist Andrew Alsop.

Some text is from a book by Ronald Dale, Antique Collectors Club, UK.

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