Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Cover That Gray . . . or Light Colored . . . or Red Hair

 By Suzanne Norquist

I color my hair. When I was thirty-two, I turned gray, but thanks to modern products, no one can tell.

Pink, purple, and blue hair might be new trends, but people have tried to look younger and more beautiful since antiquity. Men and women alike. Natural dyes could darken hair and beards, and that’s what people wanted—darker hair. The dye advertised below promises to change light, red, or gray hair to a beautiful brown or black.

For some men, it could make the difference in getting a job or not. For example, an article in the August 1, 1902 issue of
The Brush Tribune says,

“An official of the American Federation of Labor says he knows for a fact of many men who are using dyes to hide their gray hairs ... to look young enough to be able to hold their positions ... It is every day becoming more difficult for a man past the prime of life to secure employment.”

Natural dyes, similar to those used on wool and fabric, have existed for centuries. However, different techniques are required because our hair can’t be boiled in dye like cloth can.

In 1500 BC, Egyptians used henna dye prepared from the plant to darken hair. Greeks and Romans created other dyes, some of which proved too toxic to use.

Although scientific discoveries took place in the 1800’s, not much changed until the early 1900s. It took time for the new technology to be commercialized and even more time for people to start using it.

In 1863, English chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally developed the first non-natural dye. He was attempting to use coal tar to produce the malaria drug quinine. This discovery revolutionized the textile industry. The new dye produced a vivid color with staying power.

Soon after, his professor August Hoffman improved on the discovery to create the foundation for most permanent hair dyes today.

The first commercial hair dye wasn’t developed until 1907 by Eugene Schueller. He founded L’Oréal.

Since it took a while for people to adopt these new products, Margaret Mixter’s 1910 book Health and Beauty Hints provides several do-it-yourself recipes for hair dye.

One mixture to color hair black or brown hair included tea and sage. The concoction needed to be applied nightly, and it would stain the pillow. It also didn’t store well for the next day’s use.

Another natural option for brown or black hair included ground walnut shells. This one took more than a week to prepare. And hair needed to be perfectly clean before application. Any oils would ruin the job.

Alternatively, silver nitrate (the main ingredient in photographic negatives) could be used. Before coloring the hair, however, a sort of primer made from potassium sulfate (fertilizer) and other products was applied.

In all cases, another person needed to pull the dye through with a fine-tooth comb.

To lighten hair, bleaching with hydrogen peroxide was possible but not advised.

For a beautiful golden tint, henna could be mixed with honey and rhubarb powder. The person coloring their hair would sit in the sun for two hours. Then they would wash the mixture out with ammonia and sit in the sun again.

Like today, there wasn’t a good way to restore bleached or dyed hair to its original color. The
Health and Beauty Hints book says, “Advanced though science is, there is nothing yet known that will bring back the original condition quickly.” It suggests the use of oils and grease until the hair grows out.

Men and women could purchase hair dyes at the pharmacy or the barbershop. I presume these were bottled versions of the do-it-yourself concoctions. Most were designed to turn hair a “beautiful black.”

As much as I dislike spending hours at the salon, I’m glad for modern hair products. And as a redhead, I don’t want “beautiful black” hair.


"Mending Sarah’s Heart" in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

For a Free Preview, click here: http://a.co/1ZtSRkK


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.


  1. Thanks for posting today. It's a wonder people survived some of those concoctions! I'm glad we advanced the technology.

  2. I enjoyed reading this information. I colored my hair for a long time and it was costly at the salon and ended up black if I did it myself. So I decided to stop coloring my hair and let it go gray. I'm so glad I did! I've had many people tell me they love it and a hair dresser once told me people pay big bucks to try to get their hair like mine. Although I do miss my dark strands, I have learned to like the big curls.

    1. We go to so much effort to change the way we are. People have said that about my silver/white hair, but I haven't been brave enough to go natural.