My girlfriend is telling me to buy some hair gel, because my bowl cut makes me look like Paul McCartney’s lost twin. Can I politely tell her to let it be? —Max, St. Louis
If your girlfriend hasn’t dumped you and your limp locks yet, buy a bottle of gel and spend 14 seconds a day on your hair regimen for her.
It’s not so hard. Just be thankful that you have 21st-century hair. Hair upkeep in centuries past was a smelly, painful, and surprisingly flammable affair.
Let’s start with the gunk that humans have spread through their mops. One well-preserved Irishman from the 3rd century BCE was found wearing a pine tree resin gel. Not bad, though kind of sticky. The Egyptians upped the ante by dyeing their hair with a combination of cow’s blood, crushed tadpoles, and henna. Romans darkened their hair using a lead comb dipped in vinegar and made it blond with a mixture of pigeon dung and human pee. During England’s Elizabethan era, when red hair became faddish, folks opted for a delicious cocktail of rhubarb juice and sulfuric acid. In a surprising twist, this would often burn off the hair, which made balding high foreheads vogue, even for women.
If you preferred, you could wear a wig, but that came with its own problems. For one thing, wigs weren’t exactly comfortable. In ancient Egypt poor people made them out of shredded leaves or straw.
Fancier hairpieces were fashioned from human locks—though often a more dubious provenance was suspected. In the 17th century, British diarist Samuel Pepys fretted that he’d catch the plague from his wig, since the hair might have been snipped from contaminated corpses.
A more realistic danger: flaming wigs. Pepys once set his aflame while melting wax to seal a letter. He had plenty of company. The towering wigs of 17th- and 18th-century society ladies could ignite in chandeliers. Women started demanding that doorways be heightened. When not on fire, those wigs were heavy enough to leave sores on the head. At their most elaborate, they were oozing with hair grease and laden with a garage sale’s worth of doo-dads: feathers, jewels, plants. According to the Encyclopedia of Hair, some French women “created entire scenes on their heads—rooms full of miniature furniture, arrangements of small children’s toys or musical instruments, gardens, birdcages with real birds inside, and detailed model ships.” The wig lard sometimes attracted rats, which burrowed into their ’dos.
Ancient hair was an ecosystem all its own. Insects were rampant. A pair of 11th-century mummies from Peru, for instance, were teeming with mummified lice—407 on one scalp, 545 on the other. A few centuries later, Mary, Queen of Scots was reportedly outraged when men at a dinner refused to doff their hats. Little did she know, the hats kept lice from dropping onto their plates.
Hair treatments were often painful and awkward—the first perms, in the early 1900s, took 10 hours and involved scalding-hot iron rolls and broken chunks of hair. Meanwhile, your great-grandpa may have treated his balding dome by attaching a sealed vacuum to his head.
The ritual of plucking every strand of hair from the head is still practiced in several cultures, including among Jain monks. Proof there are far worse things than a chatty hairdresser—or a dab of gel.