Any self-respecting mid-century chap won’t be striving after that authentic look for long before finding himself exploring the greasy world of hair products. Sorry, horrible term that, conjuring up visions of all sorts of trendy gels. Fortunately, men’s grooming products of the 1940s and 50s have an altogether more robust feel to them, and a liberal application, sculpted with an appropriate Kent comb, quickly becomes as much a part of the ‘going out’ ritual as your best girl’s make-up – even if it should still be a bit quicker and leave you plenty of time to spin a few records and down a couple of sharpeners.
First the technical bit. Probably the only bit of my chemistry lessons I remember is that hair cream is a colloid – oil in suspension in water. So, at one end of the scale you have your lighter products like Brylcreem, with quite a high water to oil ratio, which dry out to leave a shine but a light hold. Moving on, we encounter those with a higher oil content, but still fairly liquid – the typical brilliantines of the 1930s which leave the hair slicked tight to the scalp. At the top of the scale, though, are the full-on pomades which are far more solid to the touch, reflecting the high content of lanolin, beeswax or petroleum jelly – and if that sounds a dodgy combination to be smearing on your head, just be thankful that we’ve moved on from the 18th and 19th Century reliance on lard or bear fat. There’s a social irony in that products that originated in an effort to keep men’s hair tidy and well-groomed found their ultimate 20th Century manifestation in encouraging delinquent white youth to wear their hair rebelliously long, whilst at the same time some of the longest-standing brands were equally popular amongst black men trying to flatten down their natural curls to appear more European. Hence why products such as Murray’s have a long tradition of black images on their advertising and packaging. Fortunately, in our more enlightened times and western cultures, each man has the freedom to pursue his own look, although shops and markets in more diverse communities can still be a good starting point for turning up more unusual products. Enough of the social history, though – here are some of my favourites.
Like most lads of my era, it was easy to get my hands on my first hair dressing – I just pinched a squeeze of Brylcreem from the dispenser that lived on my dad’s dressing table. Sadly, the metal pump top screwed onto the original glass jars had by then been replaced by an all-plastic version, but it was enough to cause a stir amongst my flowing-locked schoolboy contemporaries of the late 70s, although I probably looked more like Eddie Munster than Eddie Cochran. From there, I followed my dad’s lead when, after years of Brylcreem loyalty, he switched to the thicker, clear Tru-Gel – now long gone from our shelves. After brief and shameful flirtation with hairspray (I was egged on by some dodgy pseudo-Teds), it was back to the Tru-Gel until, seeking after greater 1950s authenticity, we started to learn about what was available. An early acquisition, and very easy to come by these days, was Black and White – hard to the touch, classic labelling but now in a rather boring plastic tub, but with a light coconut fragrance that makes it suitable for everyday wear. Of similar consistency, and equally useful for daily use, is Black Diamond, which comes in an attractive flat metal tin, handy to slip in a travelling grooming kit.
In similar vein, but softer, is Daks, which majors on its lanolin content; although plastic, the pot is attractive and has a neat metal lid with a design that doesn’t appear to have changed much over the years.
Just occasionally you’ll come across a little gem that doesn’t come from one of the major manufacturers. One of my favourites,
carefully eked out but now sadly reaching its last smears, is La India – lavender fragrance, lovely little oval tin with a very original look to it, and a perfect consistency. Steve Eyebrows and I found it long, long ago on a Saturday afternoon trip to Seven Sisters market in Tottenham. Another more recent find is a tin of Gosnell’s Society Brilliantine, similar size to the La India and with a nice, mild fragrance. It appears to be a long-forgotten brand which Mrs Midcentury found amongst the dead stock at Radio Days and I’m loath to defile its virgin surface to try it out. Thankfully, pomade has a loooong shelf life and doesn’t separate, so one can afford to build up a collection when a nice one appears (although it’s a sad fact for us chaps that too great a pomade stock might outlast the quantity of hair to put it in!).
However, for that true 1950s, Saturday night and I just got paid, rock’n’roll, greasy hoodlum feel, there are a few varieties that stand out amongst their peers. Blue Magic Pressing Oil is a good start – easily available, easily recognisable (because it’s blue, stupid) and in a classic red card container. I don’t have a can on the go at the moment, but it’s one I’ve used a lot of in the past and is a standard amongst the rock’n’roll gang. Just don’t confuse it with a bunch of other hair products under a Blue Magic label like ‘Tea Tree Oil Anti-Breakage Protein Complex’ which doesn’t have the same slick ring to it! My current staple is Royal Crown, manufactured by J Strickland in Memphis and reportedly the chosen dollop of Elvis in his 50s heyday, which is about as good a recommendation as anything could have. It’s red and green cardboard packaging and silver lid look like they’ve come straight from a 1950s dressing table, the consistency is perfect, the smell is clean, and it’s not hard to find – indeed, I picked up a bumper carton at Vivien of Holloway just the other week. But, for that special night out, it can only be Sweet Georgia Brown. Thick, yellow and with its own distinctive bittersweet fragrance, it’s been in production in Chicago since 1934 and its unmistakable red tin has barely changed throughout its life – even down to the legend that guarantees: “Will not turn the hair red”. Though they’ve added a strong hold blue tin version, and now a purple tin water-based variety, you can’t beat the original (or get it out of your pillow slips either). One whiff takes me back to a carload of teenage rock’n’roll cats bowling down the A10 on a Friday night – and that kind of memory jolt from a £5 red tin of yellow gunk is pretty special.