OLD-TIME PRINT ADVERTISEMENTS FOR BALDNESS CURES SHOW A SUPERFICIAL UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT CAUSES HAIR LOSS.
Old-time print ads, the really old ones from the late 1800s and early 1900s, have a quaint look about them, but many helped to spread misinformation about hair loss and certainly bilked a good deal of people with promised cures that didn’t materialize. Not all the advertisers were snake oil salesmen, but even some that may have been well-intentioned still were promising results they couldn’t really deliver.
Ads for products to rid one of dandruff are common – Dr. Rhodes’s Dandruff Cure or Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer are typical of products that claim they can cure dandruff. Whether these products were effective at obtaining this goal I do not know, but I can tell you right now that they didn’t achieve their stated second goal: preventing baldness.
The theory behind this claim is that dandruff is a major cause of baldness. While it is possible that very extreme cases of dandruff (called seborrheis dermatitis) can indeed cause damage to hair follicles, there’s no correlation between common dandruff and hair loss.
A popular and long-lasting product was Burnett’s Cocoaine, which was first put on sale in 1856 and continued selling at least through 1901. Despite the product’s title, there’s no cocaine in Cocoaine. Instead, its magic ingredients are simple coconut oil and cologne water. Although there are many who believe that coconut oil may play a role in helping to maintain hair, the degree of its effectiveness (if any) is up for debate.
Many ads didn’t even really tell buyers what they were going to get. Professor J.H. Austin simply wanted men (and women) to send him 3 strands of their hair, which he claimed he would carefully examine and then come up with a presumably custom-made treatment to stop falling hair and cure baldness. “Dermatologist” Mme. Caroline promised in an elaborately illustrated ad that “I grow hair,” going on to promise that her treatment “actually grows hair, stops hair falling out, prevents dandruff, and quickly restores luxuriant growth,” although she gives no clue exactly how she does this. (For good measure, Mme. Caroline also promotes her Renaissance Bath Tonic for “over-stout people,” that is designed to “banish surplus avoirdupois.” Personally, I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one, either.)
The Seven Sutherland Sisters are at least more forthcoming about how their product supposedly works. Aimed at women and noting that “It’s the Hair, Not the Hat that Makes a Woman Attractive,” their Hair Grower claims to “destroy microbes” and thereby restore decaying hair roots. Rexall 93 Hair Tonic was similarly obsessed with dirty little microbes and promised much the same thing. Since destroying unspecified microbes does nothing for hair retention, it’s unlikely these products did much of anything, other than making their manufacturers a bit richer.
At least these tonics weren’t painful, unlike the “Evans Vacuum Cup,” one of several products that seem to have been designed by someone who thinks bald men must enjoy a little pain now and then. Imagine taking a plumber’s plunger, attaching it firmly to your head and having someone “plunge” you for a while. The theory is that this stimulates the scalp and “circulates stagnant blood,” thereby promoting hair growth. The reality is that it’s just a way to make your pate look red and feel sore.
In 1925, the Allied Merke Institute promoted its new baldness cure with some effective, boldly-headlined “60 DAYS AGO THEY CALLED ME BALDY” ads. Indicating a full head of hair could be grown in two months, the Institute was pushing its Thermocap Treatment, which utilized heat and blue light from a special quartz bulb. Needless to say, quartz light doesn’t really grow hair, even when combined with special shampoos and tonics from the Institute.
Combs that emitted light were also no more effective, despite the popularity of “violet ray” combs, glass tubes with teeth that glowed purple with electricity.
For the record, the ads that urged men to go hatless so their hair follicles could breathe were not promoting an effective cure, either.
Some people may feel I’m being a bit harsh on some of these procedures. There are many who believe that treatments involving mustard plasters or scalp brushes or topical oils can indeed play a role in preventing hair loss or perhaps stimulating growth. My own feeling is that it’s possible that some of these treatments may produce a small change in certain individuals. But these ads promised the moon and led many hopeful men and women to expect results that didn’t materialize.
It isn’t the money that these people lost, which may have been only a pittance, that’s the problem. It’s the disappointment that many felt that’s the real issue.
In the end, every person is going to do what s/he feels is necessary to achieve a “hair state” with which s/he feels comfortable. But we would all do well to approach our options with a clear head and a realistic view of what is possible.