Dyeing for whiskers

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By | From the Collections

There have always been attempts to curb the hair loss and greyness long associated with ageing. A beard that grew a different colour to the head hair, for example, could be – and still can be – an irritating inconsistency. A browse through the Library’s 19th century advertising ephemera reveals that the maintenance of facial hair was no easy task.


In the mid-19th century, there was a demand for hair products that could instantly and easily reinvigorate or transform appearance. Opportunistic traders grabbed the moment to lure consumers with colourful trade cards and posters for their products. In New Hampshire, a trader of patent medicines, Reuben P Hall, led the way in 1864 with his two products: Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer and Buckingham’s Hair Dye.

Hailed as “just the thing” for the gentleman, a variety of advertisements for the popular product appeared in the later 19th century. Prints of some of these adverts are still available today.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

Portrait of Giuseppe Garibaldi, after Vincent Brooks, c. 1860. Wellcome Library reference: 579678i.

Thanks to prominent statesmen like Giuseppe Garibaldi and cultural figures such as Charles Dickens, carefully pruned facial hair enhanced notions of masculinity, courage and gravitas. Keeping beards plentiful, youthful and neat was all-important. This fact was pointed out in an amusing account titled My Whiskers in the New England Magazine in April 1834 (edited coincidentally by a Joseph Tinker Buckingham):

These perverse, indomitable subjects! I had rather bring up ten mules, or cultivate an orchard of crab trees. They grow every way but the right, and they are all colors that they should not be … the manner in which this nursery grows is a trial of patience to the gardener.

The author’s attempts to control his unruly beard include a number of unsuccessful remedies: walnut juice turned his cheek “darker than a gypsy’s so that for consistency, I had to stain my whole face”. Mineral agents were not much better. Although they altered the colour with immediacy, “it was a fortnight before the skin grew again upon that cheek”. Unfortunately, Hall’s safer dye had not been developed at this time and the author admits to have “encouraged quackery at the expense of everything dear to me”.

Reuben P Hall’s colourful adverts included a folding metamorphic trade card that demonstrated the before and after effects of using his dye . This eye-catching feature would have enticed shopkeepers vying for the attention of customers on the high street. As many of the adverts boast: “this Dye naturally comes in and dispels the tell-tale story of years”.

Many more examples of haircare adverts can be found in the Library’s collection of ephemera.


Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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