Female Boomers and Their Hair Apparent

Beauty products, and in particular hair care products for women, started to come into a class all their own in the 1950s. Prior to then, there were some traditional brands that the average woman used that were both domestic and imported, but in the first of the boomer decades, new companies cropped up and aggressive marketing campaigns were initiated to capture the attention of young boomers and their mothers. Most importantly, these products were priced for affordability and were readily available in drug and discount stores.

In Mister Boomer’s experience with these products — through use by his mother, aunts and younger boomer sister — these beauty products fell mainly into two categories: hair products and perfume and cologne (which will be covered in the future).

Hair Care
In Mister Boomer’s household, his mother dictated the shampoo choice in his early years. Like other women of her day, she preferred Breck or Prell shampoo. A bottle of Breck or the glass bottle of Prell, then later the plastic tube when it became available, was ever-present at the edge of the bathroom tub. Mister Boomer recalls the Breck commercial and how it came in three formulas based on normal, dry or oily hair. The ornate Olde English letter “O” on the bottle indicated Mister B’s mom had purchased the oily hair formula.

Breck had actually been one of the early brands that the grandmothers of boomers would recognize. Appearing in 1908, it was one of the first shampoos manufactured in the U.S. Breck Girls ads started appearing around 1936; the artist, Charles Sheldon, preferred to draw “real” women rather than models. In 1957, Robert Williams Williams took over for Mr. Sheldon. It was his pastel drawings that so impressed a young Mister Boomer, a budding young artist himself. He would gaze at the Breck Girls on the backs of the family magazines like Look, Life and Good Housekeeping. Not only were the idealized women beautiful — and with exquisite hair — but the pastel drawings exhibited artistic technique which was something to aspire to. In 1963, the company was sold to American Cyanamid, but the Breck Girls campaign continued until the death of Mr. Williams in 1976. By the mid-60s, Mr. Williams was drawing models rather than “real” women, though he attempted to add a bit of their individual personalities into each drawing as befitted the age.

The family all used one bottle of shampoo until it was gone. Mister B recalls not liking Breck very much at all, so it was a welcome change when Prell appeared. He recalls that it had a funny smell, but could lather like there was no tomorrow. It also left a slightly floral smell in his hair that lingered for a little while; that was not a particularly favorite trait for a product a boy wanted to sport.

The Aberto Culver Company was one of those formed in the first boomer decade. Leonard Lavin borrowed $400,000 to buy a hair conditioning formula invented by a scientist named Alberto, and built his company around his flagship product — Alberto VO5 — in Chicago in 1955. He immediately embarked on an aggressive television campaign, a risky move for many reasons in the early days of TV. The campaign worked, and by 1958, it was the number one product in its niche.

Mister Boomer recalls his mother using the product on occasion, which meant there were some elementary school days when Mister B had VO5 slicking his hair rather than Brylcreem. Mister B doesn’t recall his sister ever using the product, but both his grandmother and aunt always had a tube visible in their bathrooms. Consequently, in his mind, this product was intended more for older women than growing female boomers.

Hair always reflects the styles of the era, and certainly the boomer decades of the 1950s and 60s were no exception. Perhaps no female hair product can better represent the 50s than hair spray. High on the charts of top-selling hair sprays was Aqua Net. A true product of the boomer age, Aqua Net was an American product that was first released in the early 1950s. Right from the start it was an ideal fit to hold the popular bouffant and beehive styles of the day. The women in Mister B’s life used it, especially his mother. But from a young guy’s perspective, it didn’t make any sense to shellac hair to a shell-like consistency. A couple of decades later, Mister B was taught to use the stuff as a spray fixative for charcoal drawings. At less than two dollars a can, it was much cheaper than art fixatives.

Finally, in one of those strange categories of products that men rarely understand, there was Dippity-do. This gooey stuff was sold in a squat, clear jar, presumably so you could see the bubbles inside the gel. For a while, a jar took up residency on top of the toilet tank in the Mister Boomer household. He thinks his mother used it more than his sister, but there it sat. To a young boomer boy it was a mysterious thing that looked more like a science experiment than a hair care product. The TV ads seem to have been constantly playing, and it was evident the company was trying to appeal to a younger audience with their young models and groovy type used for the product packaging.

To a growing boomer boy, female hair products were a strange, off-putting world. Older neighborhood boomer girls would act as babysitters for Mister B and his siblings every now and then, wearing huge curlers and high hair drenched with products. His mother, being from an earlier generation, dabbled in the new products, but when push came to shove, she remained a woman of her own era. Mister B’s sister was a couple of years younger, so by the time she reached her teenage years, softer hair was coming in and there was less reliance on hair products to complete one’s style. She was more the Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific age than the Aqua Net age.

What about your experiences, boomer ladies? What female hair products did you or your siblings use?

Grooming for Boomer Men: Not Your Father’s Personal Care

After the War, people were anxious to pick their lives up from where they left off. For a large number of middle-aged American men, that meant heading back to the “sensible,” slicked, parted-to-one-side hair of the late thirties and early forties, and the “correct” scents for a man. Old Spice (around since 1937), epitomized tradition with its nautical-themed packaging, Mennen Skin Bracer, and Aqua Velva after shave (first marketed as a mouthwash in 1929!) which many GIs became familiar with during the War as a substitute for alcohol, were among the dominant products in the marketplace. For younger men looking to start their new lives and families, however, a wave of modernism was rushing in. New styles in every aspect of life — from cars to homes; furniture to fashion — dictated the Man of the Future as the 1950s approached. The stirrings of cultural experimentation frayed the edges of the rock-solid world of their parents as these new families looked to find their own way in the suburbs. They produced the first baby boomers who reached their mid-teens in the latter half of the 1950s. While they took on the products of their fathers, these new fathers wanted to use them in their own styles.

As their children — the first male baby boomers — grew, the pop culture of movie and music stars like James Dean and Elvis helped define the contemporary man. Now, while slicking back their hair with the same products their fathers used, men wore their hair either longer or shorter. In either case, men’s hair sported a new, no-part look in styles like the pompadour or flat-top. Companies could breathe a sigh of relief as hair-care brands that had been accepted for decades were now embraced by this newly-minted generation.

Among them were Vitalis, Wildroot and Brylcreem. Each had been around for decades, appearing between 1910 and 1929. Brylcreem, originally a pomade (a mixture of water, mineral oil and beeswax), became one of the top hair creams for men in the 1950s, possibly due to a successful marketing program and catchy jingle that most boomers will recall by heart to this day.

While they sing “a little dab’ll do ya,” it sure looks like a whole lot more product made it into this actor’s hair. And where was the poor woman expected to wipe her hand after running her fingers through his hair?

Manly men marketing a manly product in a straightforward, manly way. Who didn’t trust the Lone Ranger and his stereotyped sidekick, Tonto?

As the fifties grew into the sixties, Eisenhower status quo grew into Kennedy cool. For one thing, men’s hair was even more upfront as they stopped wearing hats as a required piece of apparel. They wanted more natural hair, worn longer or shorter, and the scents that women could not resist. The companies of traditional brands could sense a change in the wind, and tailored their marketing to this new generation. Now, while still using the approach of how their products would attract the opposite sex, they showed young actors in contemporary fantasy scenes with contemporary music.

Any resemblance to Jan & Dean or the Beach Boys was purely intentional.

Before the Summer of Love influenced the course of popular culture in 1967, other companies saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of this growing demographic. Using humor, along with tried-and-true sex appeal, they targeted their message directly at the man who wanted a new product for a new age.

A textbook case of how marketing can take a new brand and propel it to the forefront of popular culture. They sold the stuff inexpensively everywhere, including in those ubiquitous gift sets at the drug store.

Others joined suit, including the popular Jade East. They took the same path as Hai Karate, marketing to the younger set with an inexpensive price tag and wide availability. Many a teacher, boomer brother or father of boomer children received a gift set containing one of these featured scents from the 1960s.

Sex still sells here, but subtlety was not part of the script. Special thanks to Shindig and Hullabaloo, without which these dancers would not have the same impact.

English Leather and others also entered the arena. Again, the idea was to keep the price low and sex appeal quotient high. Another of these inexpensive colognes/after shaves to make the scene was Canoe. It had a mix of Old Spice traditional nautical packaging with modern, young lifestyle advertising. Now men had more choices — and an affordable price point — with which to display their manliness for their mate in their grooming products.

In an effort to differentiate their products and stick in the minds of their target audience, each company created great taglines that remain memorable in annals of advertising history:

Wildroot: “He uses a whistle, a wink and Wildroot: it gets her every time.”
“A little dab’ll do ya. She’ll love to run her fingers through your hair.”
“Does wonders for your hair… and you, too.”
Mennen Skin Bracer:
“Wherever you’ll find men… you’ll find Mennen.”
Aqua Velva:
” There’s something about an Aqua Velva man.”
Hai Karate:
“Be careful how you use it.”
Jade East:
“If she doesn’t give it to you, get it yourself.”
“Do you Canoe?” and “Canoe Canoe?”
English Leather:
“All my men wear English leather… or they wear nothing at all.”

Mister Boomer never liked the smell of hair products or after shave and cologne. He wasn’t big on using them at all, but in his early school days, his parents dictated what should be used. His father used both Aqua Velva and Mennen, but Mister B wasn’t shaving yet. In the case of his 1960s school days, it was Vitalis and Brylcreem for Mister B and his older boomer brother. In his early teens, an aunt bought him a bottle of English Leather as a birthday present. In an effort to try and fit in, Mister B confesses to dabbing a drop on each side of his neck for his earliest dating experiences. The bottle lasted more than a decade.

By contrast, Brother Boomer, Mister B’s older sibling, was a true aromatic man of his age. By his earliest high school dating years, he practically bathed in Hai Karate or Jade East. A short time later, he switched to Canoe. Mister B thinks his girlfriend at the time made that choice for him.

What smelled like boomer spirit for you, boomer boys and girls?