V260: Tasty 18th Century Pomatum For Your Hair

“Maybe she’s born with it…maybe it’s beef grease pomatum.” 
1775 (Reynolds) Jane detail

This year at Costume College, I attended a wonderful class given by Kendra of Demode, on the social history of 18th century hair, wherein we learned some original techniques for how stylists of the past created the over-the-top hair-do’s of, particularly, the 1770s.

Along with cork pads and loads of human, goat, or horse hair extensions, hair styles were “set” with pomatum.

“Pardon me, but do you have any bear grease pomatum?” 
1780 (Reynolds) Ladies Waldegrave 

What the heck is pomatum?  Do you really want to know?

The stuff was originally made of bear grease, but later used domestic animal fats.  One recipe calls for sheep fat, lilly root, benjamin, and storax (the last three are plant materials) mixed together over heat, along with almond paste, and rose water. (source) .

Another recipe, from 1840 (so you know this stuff was still being used!) calls for beef marrow *and* hog’s lard, spermaceti, and oil of ben melted together, along with bergamot, rose oil, and nutmeg oil. (The New Perfume Handbook, 1997).

“Easy, Breezy, Beautiful…Pomatum” 
1777 (Reynolds) Diana Sackville Detail

What effect did the pomatum have on the hair?  Well, the same as strong pomade does today.  Those sculpted, smooth curls and poufs we see in portraits were created using this stuff.  Another nice perk of beef-fat-hair-gel – the powder sticks to it rather remarkably.

So chances are you *don’t* want to be wearing tallow in your hair.  Apparently the giant poufs and coifs smelled rather profoundly, with all that pomatum, sweat, and powder.  I know a few of you are just itching to try making your own authentic pomatum, but for those less adventurous, what are some modern alternatives?

How about this stuff?  This is Murrays Hair Dressing Pomade, found commonly in the ethnic hair section of any WalMart, Target, Walgreens, etc.  This stuff is thick and stiff and sculpty, unlike softer modern pomades.  Murray’s has been around since 1925, and is made of petrolatum, mineral oil, and fragrance.  That’s it.  So we’ve swapped out the bear/cow/pig/sheep grease for petrolatum, but at least you won’t be going around smelling like an abattoir.



  • Laura Morrigan

    September 17, 2012 at 3:41 AM

    Well, I'm glad to know they used hair extensions and padding, I don't know how I would get my hair up without them! I have to use a hair rat! Of course, I would like a proper wig one day, but that seems far in the future.

  • Josje

    September 17, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    Wonderful post! When I look at pictures of beautiful costumes and interiors of the 18th century, I tend to forget how dirty and smelly life must have been. Your last sentence '…smelling like an abattoir.' really made me laugh.

  • Sandra Brake

    September 17, 2012 at 1:00 PM

    I was using Murray's pomade in the early 90s, courtesy of my hairdresser. It was the only thing that gave good enough hold until Sebastian's moulding mud came out. I still have the tin somewhere.
    Come to think of it, he cut my friend's hair in a modified 18th century style – he was fascinated with 18th century wigs. It's what made me go to him in the first place!

  • Patte

    September 18, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    "Itching to try it" is right!

    That animal grease was mighty tasty to various vermin and creepy-crawlies, who took up residence in the rich food source that was a 17th-Century hairdo!


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