Macassar Oil was popular in the 1800s as a way to strengthen and smooth hair. It is a simple concoction typically made of scented olive or castor oil. The most popular kind was Rowland's Macassar Oil. Alexander Rowland, a fashionable hair dresser in the late 1700s, popularized the oil to the point that it was a household name all the way through the 20th century.
The oil was so popular that antimacassars, removable washable cloths were invented to protect furniture from hair oil. Antimacassars were woven, tatted and crocheted and many patterns were printed for them in the mid-1800s. They were even on the chairs in theaters. The recipe is very simple!
- 1 Cup Olive Oil
- 2/4 teaspoon Oil of Oregano**
- 3/4 teaspoon Oil of Rosemary
- 1/2 Cup Alkanet (optional for coloring)
Pour olive oil into bowl, add the oil of rosemary and the oil of oregano. If you want it a red color, tie the Alkanet in the muslin so it forms a bag. Soak the Alkanet bag in the Olive Oil. You can cook this on low heat or in a crock pot for about an hour or until the color and scent infuse the main oil. Or you can combine and let sit for a few weeks.
**To create scent oils, put your scent in a small saucepan. Cover in olive oil. Heat on medium for 10 minutes. Let cool and bottle. Let the bottle sit for a week. You can alternatively just put the scent and oil in a jar and let it sit for more than 2 weeks. Rosemary, Oregano, Orange Flower, Cloves, Rose, Jessamine, Cinnamon, and Bergamot were common scents. 1 To use the oil, place a small amount in a saucer or small bowl and rub it through the hair with your fingers. 2
I thought I'd be the guinea pig and let you all see the result. Please don't mind the grainy cell phone picture and forgive me for being dressed for the 18th century I had just got home from work.
First rule of hair oil is a little oil goes a long way. The oil acted as you would expect. It did give some texture and body to my hair and did smooth out the curls. It felt like I hadn't washed my hair in a few days and was slightly greasy to the touch but not terrible. It was really good on the ends of my hair that don't generally get a lot of natural oil and made my hair shiny. It did get rid of most of the frizz and made period styles more obtainable.
However, I tried the scents authentic to the recipe. It smelled like a pizza shop! And while smoked bacon is my normal smell I thought smelling like a wood fired, artisanal, bake oven deep dish was a bit much. Even for me. I ended up scenting the rest with rose oil for my sanity. I know that people in the 1860s would not have associated those smells in the same way but there's only so long I can smell olive oil and rosemary before having to visit my grandma.
1 Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell. The New Household Receipt-book: Containing Maxims, Directions, and Specifics for Promoting Health, Comfort, and Improvement in the Home of the People: Compiled from the Best Authorities, with Many Receipts Never before Collected. New York: Long, 1853.
2 Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie's Lady's New Receipt-book: A Useful Guide for Large or Small Families: Containing Directions for Cooking, Preserving, Pickling. Philadelphia: A. Hart, Late Carey & Hart, 1850.