Monday, March 28, 2011

Want: Hair Removal

When some people think about history, they think about battlefields and treaties, voyages of discovery and royal dynasties. It’s true that these things are important, but they’re only part of the story—and not the interesting part, if you ask me. I think it’s the day-to-day details of real life that are most fascinating, and that’s why I find Youman’s Dictionary of Every-day Wants so cracktacular. It’s a snapshot of a moment in a time, focused in tight on just the spots I want to see. I have a pretty good idea what Ulysses S Grant was up to 1872—but what was his maid doing? His wife?

Well, today’s entry might have been taking up some of their time: DIY hair removal. Modern straight razors and rudimentary safety razors had been around for at least a hundred years at that point, and waxing techniques date back to the ancient Egyptians. But although depilatory shenanigans were nothing new, in 1872 the nearly hairless body Americans are now accustomed to wasn’t yet in vogue. Men shaved their faces or had well-kept(ish) facial hair, but women weren’t key players in hair removal until the first half of the twentieth century, when tops turned sleeveless, hems got high, and the advertising industry started telling us we needed a shave.

But maybe Mrs. Grant had an unsightly ’stache, or even an unfashionably low hairline. In which case, she may have read this:

The ingredients sound pretty terrifying, but come right down to it, is pitch so different from wax? And can you guess what the depilatories on the market today are made from? You got it: Nair’s ingredients include Calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime, and Sodium hydroxide, or lye. (One thing you won’t find at your local CVS, however, is the arsenic Youman thoughtfully notes can be avoided by picking depilatory recipes 3 and 4.)

This entry points out that waxing is more painful than depilatory creams, but I'm not sure it’s right. With modern techniques, at least, waxing is a quick burst of intense pain. The chemical burns that seem to inevitably accompany Nair, on the other hand, are the gift that keeps on giving—days later you can still be hurting. It’s hard to imagine getting better results from an indifferently mixed, homemade, feather-destroying substance that’s left on the skin however long it takes to dry.

The Dictionary of Every-day Wants is full of reminders of a world that was, and that this world wasn’t so different from the one we know. Just remember: Even if it never came up in high school classes, personal grooming is still part of history.