A young boy having his hair styled at the barbers in Kilsyth, c.1967 (credit: Kilsyth Chronicle) At the barbers in Kilsyth, c.1967 (credit: Kilsyth Chronicle)

In Pursuit of Beauty: Hair, Hair!

5 min read

Often described as one’s “crowning glory”, hair plays a big role in fashion trends through the ages. In ancient civilisations across the world, including Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle and Far East, salons provided the latest beauty treatments and hair styling for men and women, as is the case today.

Hirsute pursuits

At particular points in history, facial hair has been celebrated and carefully cultivated as a desirable fashion accessory. A wonderful array of beards and moustaches can be seen in North Lanarkshire’s collection of Provost portraits. Bushy beards and whiskers such as the glorious example below were hugely popular throughout Europe and North America in the mid to late nineteenth century.

Moustache cups are a curiosity from the Victorian period. The concept is believed to have been invented in 1860 by an English potter, Harvey Adams. His specially designed cup had a protective ledge, or moustache guard, across one side, with a small opening through which liquid could be sipped. By resting his moustache on the ledge, the well-coiffed gentleman was able to keep his handlebar moustache clean and dry while drinking tea! The craze spread across Europe but the cups fell out of favour when moustaches became less fashionable after the First World War.

The art of shaving

Shaving dates back to prehistoric times but was popularised by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The term barbarian, meaning “unbarbered”, was applied to people from unshaven societies. Early razors were made from stone or flint, and later bronze, copper and iron. Wealthy Egyptians employed a household barber, while in Mesopotamian society barbers were held in the highest regard.

The invention of manual hair clippers is attributed to an apprentice barber in mid-nineteenth century Serbia. Steel “cut-throat” straight (or open) razors were invented in the 1800s, while safety razors with disposable blades appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. The electric razor was invented in the 1930s and the first battery-powered shavers appeared in the 1960s.

Give us a wave

Still a popular trend today, hair curling dates all the way back to ancient history. For example, Babylonian and Assyrian men commonly crimped their beards, while the upper classes of classical Greece used curling irons. Metal tongs had to be heated in hot coals or, more recently, on the stove.

The first permanent wave machine is thought to have been invented in the early 1900s, while thermo hair curlers were created in 1930 by an African American inventor, Solomon Harper. Such treatments were generally difficult to use and often somewhat dangerous! Hair curling became much easier and safer after the invention of the electric curling iron in 1959.

Adding colour

Another trend that dates back a surprisingly long way is hair colouring. For instance, Ancient Egyptians dyed their greying hair black, while testimony from an Ancient Greek historian describes the Celtic peoples of Europe bleaching their hair with lime or chalk. Traditionally, hair dye was obtained from plants and natural substances such as henna, senna, ochre and turmeric. Synthetic dyes were developed from the 1860s (the first shade produced was mauve) and used commercially from the early twentieth century onwards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hair colouring treatments have historically contained potentially dangerous chemical compounds and even today can cause damage to the hair and skin.

Drying off

An early blow dryer pictured in the Encyclopédie Larousse Illustréee 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

An early blow dryer pictured in the Encyclopédie Larousse Illustrée 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The hair dryer was invented in 1890 by a French stylist called Alexander Godefroy. It was a rather risky contraption – a huge bonnet attached to a gas stove chimney pipe, which engulfed the client seated below! Until hand-held dryers were invented, men and women occasionally took hair drying to extremes and used a vacuum cleaner for this purpose! The machine sucked in air at the front and blew warm air out of a hose attachment at the back. The first blow dryer was patented in the USA in 1911.

Hand-held dryers for professional and home use were available by the 1920s but were heavy and often unsafe. Over-heating and electrocution were hazards commonly associated with hair drying at this time! These zinc or steel models were later replaced by compact versions with internal motors.

Bakelite hairdryers were sold during the 1930s and ‘40s. Some models could be purchased in a Bakelite vanity case complete with compact mirror and comb.

In the mid-1950s, manufacturers such as GEC made hairdryers much safer by locating the motors inside the casing. By the 1960s, plastic hairdryers were in mainstream use. These models were lighter to hold and remain little changed today. Bonnet dryers were a popular trend in the 1950s and ‘60s. Most of these dryers were designed as small, portable boxes with a bonnet, or hood, connected via a plastic tube. Wearing the bonnet allowed heat to be distributed evenly across the head.

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