Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Hair Care Products from the East Lansing Dump
Keeping with the theme of my last blog post on cosmetics, this week I dug into the history of some more grooming products recovered during excavations at Brody/Emmons Amphitheater, formerly the site of the East Lansing city dump from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Since my last post discussed cosmetic products most likely marketed to and used by women during this period, I decided to take this week to investigate hair care products that might have been used by men.
Four hair bottles of hair products were discovered in the Emmons assemblage. The bottles include 1) a tall, rectangular bottle with rounded shoulders and a long neck, embossed with the label “Wildroot” and vines on each side; 2) a square glass bottle with the remnants of a gold paper label reading “Wil—Brilli—”; 3) a small, squoval glass bottle with “Wildroot Company—Inc” embossed on one side and “Buffalo New York” on the other; and 4) a round glass bottle labeled “Vitalis” at the shoulder and base, with a metal cap.
To understand what these products were and how they might have been used, I first did some research into men’s hairstyles from the 1920s to the 1950s. In the 1920s, men almost always wore hats (1). Beneath the hat, the hair was kept pin-straight, slicked straight back, and shiny in a style sometimes nicknamed “patent leather” (1,2). In the 1930s, men wore their hair short around the ears and neck, with the longer hair at the top of the head parted to the side and kept sleekly in place (2). In the 1940’s, the short-back-and-sides hair cut remained popular (2,3). Practical, short-cropped military cuts were also common during and after World War II. The pompadour became fashionable in the 1940s and ‘50s, giving rise to the quiff made popular by stars like Elvis and James Dean (3,4). In order to wear these hairstyles, black men first had to undergo a painful process to chemically relax hair with congolene, a substance made from lye (5). Once straightened, the hair could be parted and combed flat or piled into a pompadour. These “conk” hairstyles (derived from the word “congolene”) fell out of favor in the 1960s with the Black Power era (5).
While the specifics of men’s hairstyles varied over the decades, the general principles of doing one’s hair remained the same. These styles involved keeping the hair neatly in place, often slicked back, and the shinier, the better. Hair tonic was often used to achieve these looks. The product held hair in place and made hair appear glossier, a look that was seen as a sign of health (6). Hair tonics were generally liquid with mineral oil, petroleum jelly, or wax as the primary ingredient. In addition to their use as styling products, hair tonics were advertised as hair care that was supposed to prevent dandruff and hair loss. Hair tonics lost favor in the 1960s with the introduction of gels and mousses that provided better hold with less grease (6). Two different brands of hair tonics are present in the Brody/Emmons trash context: Wildroot and Vitalis.
Wildroot was manufactured in Buffalo, New York from 1911 to 1959 (7). Wildroot hair tonic was oil-based, with ingredients including mineral oil, lanolin, and beeswax and was especially popular in the 1920s (8). So popular, in fact, that it had to protect its brand name from counterfeiters. A 1920 article from the Journeyman Barber chronicles a raid of Cleveland barbershops to confiscate counterfeit bottles of hair tonics, including Wildroot (9).
The tall, vine-embossed Wildroot bottle from the Brody/Emmons assemblage is most likely a hair tonic and dandruff remedy, similar to this one. The metal cap on the Emmons bottle indicates that it post-dates the 1920s, since advertisements for Wildroot hair tonic from the 1920s show a product with a glass stopper.
The square bottle with the gold label is Wildroot Brilliantine. I could find only few references to this particular product, but an advertisement from 1941 describes a product called “Wildroot Brilliantine” with added olive oil, probably for the purpose of increasing grease—I mean, shine. I have not yet found a good match for the third Wildroot bottle, so let us know in the comments if you know what this product is.
Advertisements for Wildroot reveal an interesting history of gendered marketing. Early advertisements for Wildroot were aimed at women. An ad from the 1920s warned women that bobbed hairstyles and tight hats were sure to cause baldness—unless, of course, one applied Wildroot to prevent hair loss. An ad from 1924 urges women to use Wildroot hair tonic on their husbands to prevent dandruff and baldness. By the 1930s, however, Wildroot was directing advertisements specifically at men, such as this one.
TheBrody/ Emmons assemblage also included a bottle of Vitalis, a product made by Bristol-Meyers that became popular in the 1940s (8). In contrast to Wildroot and other popular hair products of the time, Vitalis was alcohol-based. Its formula with “V7” was supposed to make hair shiny but not greasy. Ads that ran in the 40’s and 50’s promoted the “60-second Workout”: men were supposed to massage their hair with Vitalis for 50 seconds and comb for another ten to stimulate the scalp, prevent dryness, control dandruff, and prevent hair loss (8). The Vitalis bottle from the Brody assemblage probably postdates 1938 and looks similar to the one shown in this 1946 advertisement.
The cosmetic and hair care products from the Brody/Emmons assemblage have provided an interesting look into how men’s and women’s beauty routines have—and in some cases haven’t—changed over time (here’s looking at you, everyone with an undercut). If you enjoyed this blog post, don’t forget to check out my last post about cosmetic products from this site!
Author: Mari Isa
- “Tonic.” In Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Sherrow, Victoria, ed. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut: 2006, pp. 374-375.
- “Good News for the Barbers of Cleveland and Vicinity.” The Journeyman Barber, Volume 16, No. 1. February, 1920. Accessed here
- Wildroot Advertisement. The Chain Store Age, Volume 17. August 1941, p.123. Accessed here.