Hair dye is by no means a new invention. In fact, since early recorded history, people, particularly women, have been transforming their locks. Just not in a way we—or anyone with even an ounce of sanity—would guess!
Rome: DIY Bleach and Horror
In early Rome, it was common for ladies to attempt to color graying hair with a root touch-up, because apparently women aging has never been okay. Anyway, for this gray be gone, a concoction of boiled walnut shells, ashes and/or earthworms, would be ground together to form a lovely dark paste.
But it wasn’t just dark-haired ladies getting in on the gross dying action; blondes were also having fun (groan).
In this era, blonde hair was used to mark sex workers. This was done either by using blonde wigs, made of hair taken from Germanic folk the Romans had handily invaded, or by dying the hair.
Now, if you thought earthworms were bad, then you’re going to want to strap in for the next bit because it’s all kinds of no. To achieve blonde hair, a woman’s hair was slathered with anything from ashes to pigeon shit and then pissed on.
I know. I’m sorry. But, this grimness does actually have some science behind it! See, pee contains ammonia, which acts as a bleach, which in turn, helps dye hair blonde. Isn’t history the best?!?
Elizabethan Pain and Price Tags
Elizabeth I bought lipliner to the world, as well as the practice of using lead to lighten your skin (you win some, you lose some). But it wasn’t just makeup that Lizzy was pioneering; she was also way ahead in the hair game.
A queen of iconic hair, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of women in her court wanted in on Lizzy’s legendary locks. And so ladies would pluck back their hairlines to achieve that trademark high Elizabethan forehead (ouch!).
Coloring was also a big thing, with red and blondehair both the beauty ideals of the day. Blonde was achieved with a seriously expensive mix of cumin seeds, saffron oil, and celandine, effectively pricing anyone but noble borns from the faux blonde hair racket.
Still, you can’t knock a good false blonde down, and women once again resorted to pissing on their heads to bleach the fuck out of their hair.
Luckily, going red was a much nicer process. Elizabethan ladies opted for henna, a method that is still really popular today.
Note: I’ve been dying my hair red for over a decade; the success rate of a decent color using henna is like 0.0001%, so don’t try Elizabethan dye jobs at home.
The 1600s: It Gets Better. I Guess…
In 1602, Sir Hugh Platt published Delightes for Ladies, a handy guide of hints, tips, and recipes for women. Hugh even included some haircare know-how that didn’t suggest dead insects or piss as hair dye ingredients!
But, don’t applaud just yet! Yeah. Turns out Hugh really didn’t like women having hair; he suggested using sulphuric acid to dye their locks a fetching blonde. Don’t worry, though; Hugh makes it clear you shouldn’t touch the acid, just rub it all over your scalp.
Thankfully, by the end of the 1600s, wigs took over from highly dangerous chemicals. These wigs not only allowed women to turn their hair into towering pieces of ornamental artwork, but also play with color. Marie Antoinette was a huge fan of pastels, with her wig collection looking a lot like a very hairy sweet shop.
Sadly, all pastel-haired dreams must come to an end, and the French Revolution did away with the trend for spectacularly colored wigs. In its place was the Titus, a groundbreaking short haircut that both acted as a protest to the French Revolution and meant women didn’t have to spend hours piling on pounds of hair. But the Titus was all about looking natural, meaning hair dye was out.
But then in 1856, everything changed
A teenage science nerd called William Perkin was trying to synthesize quinine (a medicine now used to fight malaria) to impress his teacher. Because. Nerd.
Sadly, William totally failed. But, he did accidentally create a purple shade, which he dubbed Mauveine. This was the first synthetic dye! Mauveine went on to help medical research, build up the textile industry, create new types of food manufacturing, and tons more.
But let’s be real, the real success here was opening up hair to a whole rainbow of chemical colors. By the 1920s, women were all over chemical hair dyes. Sure, you left the salon with a burning scalp, but your hair was really pretty, so fair trade, right?
Obviously, no. Messing with chemicals is a dangerous game. Then putting that mess on your head is basically asking to be maimed. Nobody is a better testament to this than Hollywood star Jean Harlow, nicknamed The Platinum Blonde.
This meant that as well as acting, being the blondest blonde in Hollywood was basically Jean's number 1 priority.
But this was no easy feat. Nobody was naturally that blonde. So Jean went to extreme lengths to reach her famed platinum hue. According to Alfred Pagano, Jean’s hairdresser, “We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?”
No, Alfred, I can’t believe that! Mainly because mixing literal household bleach, Clorox, and ammonia creates a highly noxious gas which can ultimately lead to kidney failure. Jean's hair was dyed using this deadly mess once a week for years.
How is that shit even legal!? Thousands upon thousands of women attempted DIY versions of Jean's famous platinum dye recipe, with sales of bleach and ammonia skyrocketing. Thankfully, the trend was short-lived.
Jean's hair all fell out, which meant she stopped dying it and went to wigs. But the deadly dye's effects remained. Jean died of kidney failure aged 26. It was a slow and painful death, almost certainly down to her famed hair dye recipe.
Mercifully, Jean was one of hair dye's last casualties. By the 1950s, mainstream brands like L’Oréal were selling hair dye that dyed hair blonde by lightning, rather than relying on bleach, or you know…piss. The following decades were defined by hair color, from the bright colors of the 1980s to the highlights of the 1990s and early '00s (oh hey, "The Rachel")!
Now, it’s estimated around 70% of women dye their hair, which is pretty unsurprising when you realize what a historic love affair we’ve had with color and that we no longer need pee to be on trend!
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Written by Natasha Tidd, Sara Westrop, and Helen Antrobus, F Yeah History is dedicated to unearthing history that's just too good for history class. From historic hangover cures to unsung historic heroes, all told with a healthy does of gifs and somewhat terrible jokes, it's history...just not as you know it. Follow F Yeah History on FYeahHistory.com and on Twitter @F_yeah_history.