what you didn't know about hair color throughout american history

What You Didn't Know About Hair Color Throughout American History

Colorful Hair Don't Care!

Have you ever been curious as to how hair coloring came to be in the modern world? I’m talking from ancient times, and up until now.

What products were we using before now? Did they work as effectively? How did this change come about for further research? In fact, who were the first people to dye their hair? Has it always been a practice?

From Ancient Egypt to modern-day America, hair color has been a consistent beauty trend. Our methods and options have changed dramatically through history, but the interest in the potential of hair color remains unchanged. Hair coloring is one of the main things people do at least once in their lives (No, I do not have the statistics on this, but I did observe).

Think about how many people you know with a hair color that is not theirs.


When, What, Where How and Why: The First Hair Color Ever Used

When you associate the many significant technological advances with the early Egyptians, it is rare that you will find many people mentioning hair color.

Ancient Egyptians were some of the first known people to use hair dye. They used henna to cover gray hair, and many of us still use this technique today, but not for the only purpose of covering gray hair. Natural hair color was also used years later in Ancient Greece and Rome, where people pulled different plant extracts to change the color of their hair.

Here is a fun fact: The first permanent hair color was jet black for those who do not know, and you can also trace these roots back (no pun intended, but that was a good one) to Ancient Rome.

It took a few hundred years for Greeks and Romans to introduce more color choices beyond black, but hey what are you going to do? During that time, they had other things to worry about in their world. When the Roman Empire was in power, prostitutes were required to have blonde hair.

Many would have instead worn wigs to save time, but some used a plant-based mixture to lighten their natural hair color. Outside of these ancient empires, other civilizations used hair color on the battlefield as a means to show their rank and frighten the enemy.

Hair color, back then, had purposes other than for pleasure and entertainment.


The History of Hair Color from the Beginning

Did you know that hair color was an accident? Like many great modern inventions, hair color as we now know it today was by accident.

An English professor named William Henry Perkin was attempting to come up with a cure for malaria. While working on an experiment, he instead discovered the first synthesized dye. Chemistry professor August Wilhelm von Hoffman enhanced Perkin’s discovery, creating para-phenylenediamine (PPD), which is still the base for many permanent hair colors today.

Later down the road, people were making more discoveries on the wonders of hair color. In 1907, French chemist Eugene Schueller took the PPD and created the first hair color for commercial purposes.

The new product was named Aureole, but later became known as L’Oréal, as was the company that Schueller founded. History is so fun when you can relate it to something you love! Throughout the early and mid-1900s, hair color formulas advanced, and that included at-home hair color that had longer staying power and hydrogen peroxide-free lightening hair color.

Hair color was not always a treat for everyone though. The advertisements were usually advertising for the women who wanted to be discrete about it, and this happened for much of the 1950s.

Later on, the 1970s signaled a change of openness about beauty, prompting ownership of coloring your hair that paved the way for the bolder hair colors and highlight styles of the 1980s and 1990s. We all know that was a fun time to be bright and alive.

So, it was the perfect time to introduce a new medley of hair coloring that all women can openly enjoy!

The Hair Color History Break Down

Who does not love a good history breakdown on how your favorite subject came to be?

Well, this is my favorite subject, but you know what I mean. If you were ever curious as to how the history is broken down, then keep reading! The history and making of hair color techniques are not as simple as you might think.

When it comes to hair color, the process leading to present day 2018 is scientific, accidental and colorful.

Quick Facts: The Redhead

Red hair is a historical genetic mutation and most people know this, but where did we find the first redhead?

Red hair first appeared as the result of a genetic mutation in the times of the Dark Ages. The first documented case of a natural-born redhead occurred in Scotland, which is not surprising seeing hair most people there today have naturally red hair.

For many years, people with natural red hair were subjected to suspicions of witchcraft, because it was so rare and different. It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth I took her reign that red hair becomes more acceptable amongst the average person.


The 1800s

Let’s get into a little more detail. A lot of things did not change until the 1800s.

But, when English chemist William Henry Perkin made an accidental discovery, it changed hair dye and the textile industry forever. In an attempt to generate a cure for malaria as I stated before, Perkins created the first synthesized dye out of coal tar in the year 1863.

The color was mauve, so they named the color Mauveine. Soon after, his chemistry professor August Hoffman derived a color-changing molecule from Mauveine (called para-phenylenediamine, or PPD), and it remains the foundation for most permanent hair dyes today.


Now, we are getting into Eugene again! You may not be familiar with the name "Aureole," but we're pretty sure you know "L'Oréal."

In 1907, Eugene Schueller created the first chemical dye for commercial purposes. He called it Aureole, at first, but later it was renamed to L’Oréal, which was also the company he founded. You may not be familiar with the name "Aureole," but we're pretty sure you know "L'Oréal."

From that point on, it was a beauty conglomerate in the making.


Ever wonder where the term platinum blond comes from and how it gets here? Well, let’s look back in history.

You can thank Howard Hughes (and Jean Harlow) for this classic name for hair color. In 1931, in what might be the most successful public relations strategy ever (I do a lot of public relations work, so the campaign was exciting for me), Hughes released a film called Platinum Blonde.

This tactic was titled this way to promote and capitalize on the hair color of the young star, Jean Harlow. After that, many fans were dying to get their hair color like Jean Harlow. Hughes’s team even organized a chain of Platinum Blonde clubs across the country, with a $10,000 prize that would go to any hairdresser who could copy Harlow’s shade.

The funny part of this story is the fact that Jean Harlow never admitted to dyeing her hair.


As time went on, formulas advanced.

In the states, a chemist named Lawrence Gelb, under the brand Clairol, produced a dye that would access the hair shaft, creating a longer-lasting effect. Thank you, Gelb! We did not have another hair coloring breakthrough until around the 1950s.



Before 1950, being a person with blonde hair involved bleach and a lot of damage.

That became even truer after the hair color became so popular during the last few years. Lawrence Gelb advanced formulas in the 1930s, but the genuinely revolutionary discovery came in 1950.

That year, Clairol, the company Gelb founded with his wife Jane Clair, introduced the first one-step hair dye product that lightened hair without bleaching it. The whole world could not wait to try this one out. The Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath allowed women to color their hair at home, discreetly.

This was important, as women preferred not to publicize the fact that they dyed their own at this time.

The 1960s–1970s

By the late 1960s, coloring your hair was the norm for mostly everyone, and 1968 was the last year that Americans were asked to state their hair color on passports.

There was no point in reporting that useless information if everyone had the opportunity to change their hair color at will. And by the 1970s, public sentiments toward dyeing your hair began to change. Slogans like L’Oréal’s “Because you’re worth it” encouraged acceptance of openly using hair color products.

The shift in viewpoint was a lasting one because we see many of these viewpoints today and proudly from many women all over the country.


The 1980s

The decade of celebrity endorsements began close to the 80s.

You can’t turn on the television without seeing some gorgeous celebrity trying to sell you hair color, and it continues to be an effective tactic. During the beauty industry boom of the ‘80s, many brands locked in Hollywood's biggest names to endorse their products.

Which was smart because of celebrities, like Cybil Shepherd, provided hair inspiration for many in mainstream America.

The 1990s

The 90s were a time of bold simplicity, where the actual clothes and looks would be simple.

Yet accompanied by a series of bright and bold colors that seem to compliment well with each other. If you did not see it in the ‘90s, then you are either blind or too young to know. With punk and rock influences (where unicorn hair first originated, which is my absolute favorite hair color) mixing in with the popular coloring trend of highlights.

During this time is when you would see bold colors and highlights take the stage.


During the 2000s (even up until just a few years ago, 2014) most of the population was embracing other more natural-looking hair color techniques.

Kylie Jenner took the opposite approach and made her first significant hair color transformation, by popping out with the bluish-teal hair color that many YouTubers attempted again and again. The youngest Jenner sister set herself apart with the now-iconic teal blue tips.

Little did we know this would be the first of many vibrant hair colors for Jenner, how ironic.



From natural-looking color and soft balayage to vibrant rainbow tresses, it’s clear that hair color has become a staple in today’s beauty industry.

Today, an “estimated 70 percent of women in the U.S. use hair-coloring products," according to The Atlantic. But while styles and products have changed dramatically since ancient days, much of the actual chemical composition of hair color has remained unchanged.

Since the people introduced it as a commercial product over one hundred years ago.

From Katy Perry to SZA, who love to surprise us with their drastic hue changes, it seems like experimenting with hair color will surely be an ongoing trend.


The Future of Hair Color

In decades past, hair coloring was a lot subtler and more taboo.

But, nowadays we have embraced openness, beauty and doing whatever you want! Women (and men!) are prouder than ever to try out new colors and talk about the process of getting them. I have discussions with people all the time about how they achieve their color.

After all, it seems like every time a star dyes their locks we have another news story. Sure, it's fascinating to see who will step out of their comfort zone, but, more importantly, it provides us with plenty of inspiration for our next look.

What types of colors do you like for your hair? Are you going to try anything new for the fall? What color do you have now and are you satisfied with it? Hair color is one of my most favorite topics to discuss, so let me know how you all feel by commenting in the comments section below!

I would love to see what you all think about the wonders of hair color.

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