Free Online Archives (and hair brushing by steam engine)

Advertisement from The Town Crier: or, Jacob's Belles Lettres, Birmingham, Nov 1866

In Birmingham, England, circa 1866, there was a “Professor Steele, Practical Hair Cutter,” who offered a yearly subscription to men’s hair care services.  ”All Subscribers,” advertised Professor Steele (see advert, left), “will receive immediate attention from himself and Eleven first-class Men, and may have their HAIR CUT, CLEANED, SHAMPOO’D, AND BRUSHED BY STEAM, As often as they like, all the year round, in the largest, handsomest, and best-fitted saloon in the three Kingdoms.”1 Subscription price: One Guinea.2

Their hair brushed by steam? And just how did that  work?

Well, it worked by means of a Camp’s Rotary Hair Brush, of course, which was “propelled by a pretty bright Steam Engine, which performs its revolutions in a glass case, in a perfectly noiseless manner.” I have to admit, I cannot form a clear image of this device in my mind, not even after having read the accompanying paean to the THE ROTARY HAIR BRUSH in rhyming verse (“It rolls with soft mechanic power/Around the head with ease/And thousands who have tried it say/It cannot fail to please.”).

Of course, nowadays there are steam hair brushes and steam hair rollers and ionic paddle brushes, and who knows what. But an engine revolving in a glass case in order to brush someone’s hair?  Well, Birmingham has long been synonymous with England’s Industrial Revolution, of course, but a Steam Engine for the hair?!

Advertisement from Ottawa City and Counties of Carleton and Russell Directory, 1866-7 (Hunter, Rose & Co., 1866)

Though such an advanced innovation in men’s hair care must have been utterly unknown to, and unimagined by, the solid but stolid male inhabitants of the British North American provinces, needless to say? I mean, these men had acres of land to clear; and bears and wolves to shoot; and wooden frame or stone houses to build (their wives and children still often living in rough shanties): surely they had neither time nor money nor inclination to devote to the shampooing and steam cleaning of their hair? But wait!: No, not always, or not universally. Not every man in 1860s Canada was a settler or a trapper or a voyageur or something rustic like that; and even pre-Confederation (1867), the Province of Canada did have a couple of cities. For example, Ottawa, formerly Bytown, capital of the United Province of Canada from 1857, and the nation’s capital from 1867. And in 1866 in Ottawa, apparently (see advert, right), Camp’s Famed Patent Rotary Brush was “in constant use” at the Parliament Hair Saloon on Rideau Street, where it was “the only one on this Continent.” Really? No Camp’s Rotary Brush in use at Boston or Montreal? No Steam Engine for the hair at New York or at Toronto? From Birmingham to just Ottawa? Colour me sceptical.

Also, I find a bunch of my ancestors listed in the above directory, which is online at Archive.org. They were farmers in Carleton County who probably never had their hair steam cleaned or brushed in their entire lives. They were rural and rustic; they had rifles, which they used to shoot wolves and deer. But they lived very near to a world in which a man could have his hair done with a patented rotary steam engine brush, and could take a bath with scented soaps, and English and French perfumes.

Archive.org has a number of Ottawa city directories online (and available free of charge), along with a couple of 19th-century histories of Ottawa. The above Birmingham advert (from The Town Crier: or, Jacob’s Belles Lettres) from google books (also online, free of charge). If you want to know something about the world(s) in which your ancestors lived, there are free and accessible online archives now, there are gateways (sometimes surprising, sometimes quirky) to past worlds. Look for “toys” or “soap” or “steam engines,” look for “fallow fields,” look for “raspberry preserves” or “cucumber pickles.” And also search under surnames and place names, of course.

  1. The three kingdoms = England, Scotland and Ireland.
  2. 1 Guinea = 21 shillings, or one pound and one shilling