Ye Olde Grooming Disasters: Bear Grease Wigs

Here's why bear fat was the slickest hair accessory of the 16th century.

bear-hair

In today’s world of extensive male grooming, men are faced with a bewildering array of hair products. Mousse, gel, wax, fiber, paste, clay, pomade and more vie for attention on the shelves of the local pharmacy, each promising a slightly different hold or texture. But back in simpler times, if you were looking for something to stick your hair into place, there was only one product that could do the job: Bear’s grease.

Despite sounding like a whiskey-scented beard wax aimed at ironic hipsters, this product was very literally a bear’s grease—that is, grease made from the rendered fat of brown bears. Its use was noted as early as 1653, when the English botanist Nicholas Culpeper claimed it prevented hair loss (the wildly erroneous theory being that, since bears are extraordinarily hairy, their fat would stop hair from falling from human heads, too). Despite such quack science, bear’s grease remained popular as a hair product for around 250 years.

While it was generally held that grease from Russian bears made the finest hair product, the (unwitting) market for fake bear’s grease was huge, with most vendors duping customers with a simple mix of lard and perfume, dyed a more attractive color with anything from cocoa powder to turmeric.

It wasn’t just used on thinning heads, either. Large, powdered wigs were an essential fashion accessory for more than 200 years (a trend you can blame on an outbreak of syphilis that caused people’s hair to fall out). At one point, these wigs grew so large and precarious they had to be constructed over teetering wooden frames. The fake hair was then pasted into place on its scaffolding with either the aforementioned bear’s grease or beef lard (or, more likely, the latter masquerading as the former).

As you might expect in the generally unsanitary conditions of 18th century Western Europe, all that delicious meat dripping attracted scores of hungry rats, and special cages had to be designed to prevent these towering hairpieces from being devoured in the night by vermin.

As much as the modern man might feel overwhelmed by the abundance of hair product options available to him, he can at least feel fortunate that his grooming accessories no longer include a stick for fending off rodents.