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Antique ‘Hair Bottles’ Prove Great-Great-Grandmother had Bad Hair Days, Too

by Bram Hepburn (06/01/12).

"Lyon's Kathairon for the Hair", was a very successful operation out of New York, and therefore their bottles are not rare, with this open pontil 1850s example valued at $40. Note the simple, crude and desirable early block lettering.

There are not many of society’s problems that have had as little progress shown as the problem of bad hair. Chemical lotions and potions and emollients—embellished with words like “luminous” and “lustrous” in TV commercials—claim these products will perform magic on our otherwise helpless scalps and faltering follicles. And yet, we see as many thinning, frizzled and sometimes frightening heads of hair out on the town as ever.

Collectors of 19th century American glass bottles will attest that the “bad hair day” problem has been serious enough to create a demand for wishful thinking potions at least back as far as American bottles had embossed lettering on them; since round about 1840 or so.

The vintage descriptions and claims were no less embellished and creative then as they are today. The glass bottles they were sold in are now some of the most beautiful and desirable to antique bottle collectors today. “Hair bottles” come in an array of spectacular colors, from brilliant sapphire and cobalt blue to puce (an unusual color with hues of rust, rose and purple), topaz, olive green and others. The best of the best in the hair bottle category range in values from about $500 to $5,000. The more humble examples shown in this article were dug by me, so the price was right. And, while they aren’t exactly investment pieces, the embossed lettering makes them a fascinating and “colorful” category to specialize in.

When researching the products and snake oils of days gone by—sold before regulatory requirements began to enter the marketplace—the claims and descriptions used to sell these products had no bounds. I’ve poured through giant dusty dictionaries in search of terms that I find embossed on some of my earliest dug bottles over the years, only to find the term existed nowhere else, except on the bottle I was researching and in the mind of the purveyor. Words like “Kathairon,” “Tricopherous,” “Hyperion”and “Olosaonian,” found crudely embossed on bottles of old hocked products, were loose in their definition but certainly added to the value and desirability of the empty bottles left behind for collectors.

This 1880s tooled-lip bottle “7 Sutherland Sisters HAIR GROWER” is a scarce, popular, but somewhat later hair bottle, valued at $25.

One of the products I find hard to picture trying to sell is marked “Bear’s Oil.” And it is what it says. Imagine a woman with long flowing hair taking fat grease from a bear and rubbing it through her hair. But, indeed, it was once considered a luxury, and bottles such as these are rare and very desirable, with some of the rare variants, and with their original labels affixed, they can fetch more than $1,000, quite a tag for an empty two-inch-tall bottle. After 30 years of digging and wishing I would finally find one, I finally found mine in a muddy river. They are, in my opinion, a wonderful piece of Americana.

Open pontiled blown hair product bottles, their contents and the values of their empty bottles (left to right): “Barry's Tricopherous for the skin and Hair," $35; Lyon's Kathairon for the Hair New York, $40; Delight's Spanish Lustral, $80; Bogle's Hyperion Fluid for the Hair, $80.

If you search online for a collection of American glass hair bottles, you will feast your eyes on a rainbow of colors, and bottles of rudimentary form, usually with some added feature, with beveled edges, wide flared lip, usually six inches tall or so. They are just gorgeous and getting harder and harder to find. If you have an extra million dollars lying around, invest it in the best of the best early hair product bottles. You’ll enjoy their visual beauty and the charm of what they claimed to contain.

Open pontil “Bears Oil” bottle with a fragile flared lip, value $150.

A “Mrs. Allens - Worlds Hair Restorer - New York” bottle in black violet with indented panels and a flanged lip from the 1880s. Its value is $200.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

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