Have you ever wondered what people used to care for and style their hair before the advent of hairspray, gel, shampoo and conditioner? The week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, discovered by CAP curator Rachel Lovelace-Portal, answers that question in the form of bear’s grease, or, more specifically, a small ceramic jar that once contained bear’s grease. The lid is decorated with a central image of two bears and the words “Highly Perfumed Bear’s Grease for Beautifying & Strengthening the Hair.” The State Museum bought the jar in the 1980’s. The artifact offers insights into 19th century hair care and prominent Philadelphia perfumer Xavier Bazin.
Bear’s grease has a long history of use in hair care regimens. American Indians used the product to stiffen and style their hair as well as to add shine. In the 19th century, people used bear’s grease to make pomades, a waxy substance similar to hair gel used to style hair. Magazines, newspapers and ladies guides also promised that bear’s grease would help grow hair as well as serve as a cure for both baldness and sores.
Pomades, the more popular use for bear’s grease, were either made at home or by perfumers. The first step in making a bear’s grease pomade was to boil bear fat until it was purified and then add a preservative, such as benzoic acid. Pomades were often colored using a variety of natural substances such as cocoa powder and turmeric. Bear fat has a strong odor, so recipes included ingredients such as rose leaves, rosemary oil, lavender, thyme, almond oil, or vanilla to cover up the unpleasant smell. A pomade recipe found in A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumery, published in 1892, includes the following ingredients: purified bear’s grease or beef tallow, rose-geranium oil and vanilla tincture. According to The Art of Beauty published in 1825, the finished product had a consistency similar to “olive oil” or “frozen honey.”
During the 1800s, Philadelphia served as a hub for perfume, soap and pomade manufacturers. Many of those factories were located on Chestnut Street. Edwin T. Feedley wrote in Philadelphia and Its Manufacturers, that the city’s perfumers were “unrivalled” and that others were the “largest in the world.” One of these perfumers was Xavier Bazin. In 1849, Bazin bought Eugene Roussel’s perfumery at 114 Chestnut Street. Roussel’s perfumery was well known for producing bear’s grease, which Bazin continued to produce along with soaps and perfumes.
Bazin moved his factory to 166 Chestnut Street in 1852, which means the State Museum’s jar was produced sometime immediately after Bazin bought his perfumery. Bazin ran a successful business. In 1851 he displayed some of his soaps at the Great Exhibition in London and won an award. Bazin’s business continued until 1884 when it was sold to George Wright.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.