Column: Greasy kids’ stuff — We most certainly did not say that
Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor RayCrippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Jan. 3, 2004.
WORTHINGTON — No, I did not.
This was my answer to the question, “Did you get some hair oil for Christmas?”
I did not.
The question came from a man who was recalling Christmas seasons long gone by when hair oil was prominent in the Christmas scene.
We have to begin by explaining, “What is hair oil?” I think it is possible you may be 43 years old and never have seen a bottle of hair oil. When I say more — when I say men and boys once poured thick, clear oil on the palm of one hand and rubbed into their hair — your reaction could be, “Ykkkk!”
Don’t ykkkk too loudly. Hair oil still is used. But the hair oil phenomenon which America once knew is gone.
You don’t see felt hats with hair oil stains around the brim and hat band any longer. You don’t see boys combing their locks and then pushing an oily comb into a pants pocket. You don’t see crocheted doilies pinned to the backs of easy chairs to protect upholstery from greasy hair.
There may have been costly hair oil, but plenty was available that was cheap. Hair oil usually came in a clear, thick glass bottle that sometimes was decorative, maybe in the shape of a half moon. There was a thin hole through a spout at the top of each bottle and a hard plastic, black cap to screw off.
Bottles of hair oil could be had for a dime. This was how it came to be a feature of the Christmas season. Kids would draw each other’s names in elementary school classes, in Sunday School classes. If you drew a boy’s name, you bought a bottle of hair oil. There was no offense.
Any average, well-groomed boy with a good head of hair might pick up two or three small bottles of hair oil through the week or two before Christmas.
What did hair oil do? Well, it made hair shiny. It surely did. Hair oil made hair manageable — well-oiled hair tended to stay where it was combed. Hair was said to be “slickered down.” The well-oiled boy was “all slickered up.”
The problem was excess. It was difficult to limit applications to modest amounts and still achieve desired results. So it was that many a boy looked like an apparition from Psalm 23:
“Thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
Not uncommonly, on a summer day, hair oil could be seen flowing off scalps and seeping across foreheads. It was a running joke when men or boys went to get their haircut, to say, “I got my oil changed.”
Hair oil was everywhere. It was found in every dime store, every drug store, every barber shop. Barber shop stocks were the most impressive. Barbers set out a row of tall bottles of oils and tonics on the counters in front of their barber shop mirrors. If for some unsociable reason a man or boy did not want oil or tonic in his hair, he had to notify the barber in advance of his trim: “No oil.”
There was unscented hair oil. Who wanted that? Oils and tonics came in an array of quite alluring fragrances. My favorite was Lucky Tiger. I would love to smell it once again. Lucky Tiger came in a large bottle and was available only at a barber shop.
There was an ad from 1909 on eBay lately for Rexall Hair Tonic:
“Rexall 93 Hair Tonic is a pleasant, fragrant, clean hair requisite — a preservative and invigorant that nourishes and promotes the growth of lustrous, luxuriant hair. It keeps the scalp free from dandruff — and prevents premature loss of hair.” (I should have ordered some.)
My preferred oil, for no important reason except that it had only slight scent, was Vaseline, which “fights dry scalp” and which was available in abundance at least to the time of the war in Korea.
I think Brylcreem had much to do with slowing the flow of hair oils. Brylcreem, said the ad writers, was the successor to “greasy kids stuff.” Brylcreem: “a little dab’ll do ya.”
Brylcreem and John F. Kennedy. JFK, with that big head of hair, was the first prominent political figure to go about with no hat in all seasons and in all places and with no trace of kids’ stuff of any kind.