Pomatum, sometimes called pommade or pomade, was a greasy substance or ointment that was scented or perfumed and used to give the hair a shiny, slick appearance. Pomatum also helped to keep a hairstyle in place. According to one source, in addition, it nourished, strengthened, preserved, and thickened the hair.
The name pomatum was “derived from pomum, an apple, because it was originally made by macerating over-ripe apples in grease.” Pomatum was created from fats, such as lard, tallow, or marrow, although by the late 1800s, it included such items such as “cocoa butter, cocoanut [sic] oil, castor oil, almond oil, spermaceti, … wax, and … vaseline.” Olive oil, poppy oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, and almond oil were also sometimes used in combination with meat fats.
Besides pomatums for the hair, there were pomatums for the skin (sometimes to aid wrinkles, redness, or pimples), as well as balmy pomatums for chapped, dried lips. Pomatums for the skin often included cucumbers, which were supposedly what the celebrated French author, courtesan, freethinker, and patron of the arts, Ninon de l’Enclos used in the seventeenth century. Lip pomatums included ingredients such as oil of almonds, virgin wax, and orcanette root with “drops of essence of rose.”
Although pomatum could be used on the skin and lips, most pomatums were designed for the hair. Hair pomatum became extremely popular by the early 1800s. Early pomatum recipes included “kid’s grease, an orange sliced, pippins [a now-extinct medieval variety of large, ribbed apple], a glass of rose-water, and half a glass of white wine, boiled and strained, at last sprinkled with oil of sweet almonds.” To create a pomatum, it involved a tedious homemade process as the fat had to be “inodorous” and “thoroughly cleansed to prevent rancidity.” Otherwise, a bad odor would emanate from the fat and scenting the odorous pomade would cost more to cover the bad odor than to deodorize it. In the 1800s, because pure, inodorous fat was so difficult to obtain, people living near London sometimes purchased it from a Mr. Ewen as he was considered to be “the best fat purifier in London,” and because he employed “a stone roller” and flowing water to achieve his inodorous fat.
The homemade process to achieve the fat was fairly standard, but the fats used varied. Sometimes lard, suet, or marrow was used and came from beef, pork, or mutton. Other times people used fat acquired from chickens, deer, horses, or bears. In fact, at one time bear pomatum was “much esteemed for promoting the growth of the hair, but in reality possesse[d] no superiority over any other animal fat.” (A side note about bear’s grease or fat: It was not necessarily acquired from bears as hog’s fat was what was usually used, although it was called bear’s fat.)
To create a basic pomade the bloody or membranous parts of the suet or meat were separated and cut into small pieces. After several washings, what remained was pounded with a mortar and pestle and the moisture drained off. The remaining fat was then beaten into a paste, melted gently, and constantly stirred with the fat skimmed off repeatedly. Once all the scum or dregs had completely risen to the top, the remaining mixture was poured through a sieve and placed in a cold place, where several days later the cold mixture was remelted and poured into pots.
The amounts and ingredients used to create a pomatum varied and sometimes a mixture of fat was used. For instance, one recipe for “common pomatum” included one pound mutton suet and three pounds lard that had been prepared as stated above. This was then carefully melted, stirred, and cooled, with two ounces of bergamot added to scent it. “Hard pomatum” always included suet, and one recipe for a hard pomatum contained mutton suet, lard, and bergamot, but in addition, also included four ounces of white wax. “Soft pomatum” did not contain suet and was always created from lard. One soft pomatum recipe used hog’s lard cut “in small pieces, and cover[ed] … with clear spring water, [that required] changing … every twenty-four hours for eight days.” The remaining mixture was melted, strained, and the “essence of lemon” added to scent it.
There were two ways to scent a pomatum: “the desired odor … imparted to the fat by the extraction of flowers … or the fat in a semi-congealed state … perfumed with different volatile oils.” Hundreds of fragrances and scents could be added to the pomatum. One recipe for a pomatum, also known as Jessamine Butter, included Jessamine flowers because they “will imbibe the scent, and make a very fragrant pomatum.”
Besides Jessamine flowers, lemon, lavender, lilac, jonquils, orange flowers, and roses were often used, as well as cloves, cinnamon, rosemary, thyme, and vanilla. These scents could be combined in varying mixtures. However, despite all the varying scents, supposedly, one of the best was acacia farnesiana, or rather Cassie, which was described as “an intense violet odor, and … rather sickly sweet.” To prepare the extract of cassie, six pounds of cassie pomatum were mixed with one gallon “rectified spirit … [and] after it … digested for three weeks or a month, at a summer heat, it [was] fit to draw from the pomatum, and, if good, [had] a beautiful green color, and rich flowery smell of the cassie blossom.”
Although transparent pomatum or pomade could be created, it was often desirable to tinge the prepared fat. One pomatum had carmine color added to the muslin bag. This resulted in a “Sultana Pomatum” because of the red color. Other colors to create red pomatum included alkannin or cinnabar, and if a yellow pomatum was desired, annotto, turmeric, and cadmium sulphide were used. For brown pomatums, cocoa powder or ochre were added. If for some reason green was needed, chlorophyll was used.
Recipes for hair pomatum included pomatums to cure baldness, to aid against incipient baldness, or those to restore hair, as it was claimed by certain individuals that “some fats enjoy the property of strengthening the scalp and promoting the growth of the hair.” One recipe for a restorative pomatum used a combination of beef fat, bear fat, virgin wax, and olive oil, which was melted for two hours. To this was added a muslin bag filled with “bruised cloves, half an ounce of cinnamon, two bruised tonquin beans, and four grains of musk.”
Before a restorative pomatum was used, one doctor suggested that thin or balding parts of the head should be washed with the following preparation:
“[A]n ounce of cloves in a quart of water for an hour; strain[ed] and … [filtered and] when cold one quick lime [added because the washing stimulant was] said to have an extraordinary effect in restoring vitality, and if the hair be washed with it, it is made strong, and does not fall off.”
Pomatum applications depended on the individual, although one source warned that is was always wise to use it sparingly:
“[T]he chief inconvenience that may arise, even from their too free or injudicious use, will be only temporary irritation, perhaps accompanied or followed by slight desquamation of the cuticle, or by a few unimportant pustules which will pass off in two or three days, yet there are cases in which their application would be unwise, and liable to produce more serious consequences.”
No matter how careful people were, problems did occur. In fact, certain people were warned against using any pomatums because of what might happen:
“Thus, persons of a nervous temperament, with a highly irritable skin, and bad habit of body, person liable to attacks of erysipelas [an acute bacterial infection], or to swollen glands behind the ears, or to swellings or tumors in the upper part of the neck behind, or to eruptive or other attacks of the scalp, and the like, should not have recourse to them.”
Although pomatum helped people achieve complicated and complex hairdos, one person described the use of pomatum as “stiffening or compacting the hair into dirty and greasy masses … or … nature’s ornamental locks into nasty rat’s tails.” The increased luster and shiny effects that pomatum gave over time were also said to “diminish that polish which [the hair] naturally possess[ed]; while, whatever gloss they may give to the hair which is naturally dull, is false, and, like all falsities, disgusting.”
Removal of this disgusting falsity was prudent at some point, and although there was plenty of information on how to make pomatum, very little information existed on how to remove it. One source claimed it was difficult to remove, even “sometimes injurious” to do so because the hair was often matted and tangled and the pomatum greasy and thick. One suggestion for pomatum removal was running a fine tooth comb repeatedly through the hair, despite the fact that some pomatum flaked, as was the case with spermaceti after it had sat in the hair for a week or two.
After the pomatum was pulled out, the hair was not necessarily washed. In the 1700s hair washing was not a frequent practice, and although people were encouraged to wash their hair during the 1800s, “shampoo” often consisted of eggs yolks, brandy, cold tea, or oils, such as olive or castor oils. So, it is unlikely that the entirety of pomatum was removed during a single “washing.” In fact, if a person wanted to remove it at all, they likely washed their hair several times in a row.
-  Piesse, George William Septimus, The Art of Perfumery and the Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants, 1862, p. 288.
-  Deite, Carl, A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumery, 1892, p. 284.
-  Merle, Gibbons, The Domestic Dictionary and Housekeeper’s Manual, 1842, p. 186.
-  American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 28, 1854, p. 175.
-  Merle, Gibbons, p. 185.
-  American Journal of Pharmacy, p. 176.
-  Cooley, Arnold James, The Book of Useful Knowledge, 1851, p. 105.
-  The New Family Receipt-Book, 1810, p. 136.
-  Deite, Carl, p. 285.
-  The New Family Receipt-Book, p. 66.
-  Piesse, George William Septimus, p. 87.
-  Ibid., p. 88.
-  Deite, Carl, p. 284.
-  Merle, Gibbons, p. 186.
-  Ibid.
-  Cooley, Arnold James, The Toilet and Cosmetic Arts in Ancient and Modern Times, 1866, p. 509.
-  Ibid.
-  Scott, John, etal., The London Magazine, Vol. 14, 1826, p. 180.
-  Ibid., 179.