The first colors for hair were derived from plants and insects. Henna, Chamomile, and
Indigo were commonly used in Egypt to color the hair, and in times before, berries were often used to tint the hair as well. Lemon
and other citrus juices, black sulphur, alum, and honey mixtures were used to encourage bleaching in the hair to lighten it. These
types of “natural” haircolors were predominantly all there and was available until the 19th century when some chemical discoveries were made.
In the early 1800s some men would use silver nitrate to darken the gray hair of their
mustaches. This led to the development of a proper haircolor formula being developed. The mixture consisted of silver nitrate, gum
water, and distilled water and was referred to as Grecian Water. It was highly popular although it lost some of its appeal when it
turned out that repeated usage caused the darkened hair to turn purple.
The use of metallic salts has continued to this day, and there is a slightly comic twist
to the fact that today’s metallic-salt-based products for covering gray can have a tendency to turn the hair a slightly green tint if allowed to continue to develop on the hair.
The real breakthrough in coloring, however, came in 1859, when a German student,
experimenting with coal tar, diluted it with alcohol and found that he’d created a purple dye. This led to the creation of a
synthetic dye for use on fabrics and hair, and later to the development of the dyes we know today.
In fact, two of the most widely-known products brands for hair coloring got their start
at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. In 1907, French chemist, Eugene Schueller developed a hair dye based on a synthetic
formulation of paraphenylenadiamine, which he called Aureole. This was later changed to ‘L’Oreal’. A few decades later, New York
chemist, Lawrence Geld developed a haircolor that penetrated the hair shaft and started a company to produce and sell it. This
was the birth of ‘Clairol’. In 1950 he further revolutionized the haircolor industry by creating and introducing a single-step
hair color product called Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath, which was the first color product that could lighten and tint the hair
(without using harsher bleaches) in one process.
The Lasting Effects
The ability to change the color of your hair permanently (until the natural color grows
out enough to show) and easily changed the attitudes many women had about hair color. In the 1920s young women were changing their
haircolor to suit their sense of style and flash as the Flapper Age burst forth. This was followed by the inevitable backlash of
dramatic changes in society, and hair coloring was stigmatized in the early 1930s as something only “loose girls” did.
By the end of the 1930s, though, the attitudes relaxed a bit and haircolor was again
accepted – and sometimes even reveled in.
By the 1950s, however, there was still some stigma attached for many women, particularly
when it came to admitting that they colored their hair. One of the major reasons for some women to use hair color was to hide the
gray hairs which would develop with age. The absence of gray was equated with being younger (or at least looking it).
An advertising copywriter (Shirley Polykoff) is credited with helping to bring hair
coloring into the mainstream for modern women when she created an ad campaign with the tagline “Does she… or doesn’t she? Only
her hairdresser knows for sure.” This long-running ad campaign is thought to be largely responsible for the dramatic increase in
the use of at-home haircolor products. During the next 20 years, until she gave up the account, the number of American women
dyeing their hair rose to more than 40% (from around 7%). This lasting result also helped to cement the future of the company for
whom the campaign was designed. That company, of course, was Clairol.
The reason for the success of the campaign was simple: it implied that women – respectable
wives and mothers – had the right to color their hair if they chose, and could now do it with discretion in their own homes.
The 1970s brought another attitude shift, as haircolor wasn’t just a right, enabling you
to cover your gray discretely in privacy, but was a reward. The young ad executive, Ilon Specht, handling the L’Oreal brand, wrote
a slogan that resounded with women all over. Equal Rights were a hot button issue and women all over were clamoring to be
acknowledged. The ‘L’Oreal’ slogan, “Because I’m worth it,” boldly declared that every woman has the right to be whomever she
wants to be, and ‘L’Oreal’ will help her to reinvent herself in any way she wants.