Thursday, July 16, 2015

Revolutionize Your Hair With "La Marseillaise"

"to clean, beautify, and strengthen the hair"

To us, it seems a commonplace item: a product promising to make the consumer healthier and more attractive, promoted with the aid of patriotism.

dia. 3.25 "; height 1.75" (83 x 43 mm.)

The small paper box is undated but, based on the lettering and the fashion styles depicted on the lid, was produced sometime around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

"La Marseillaise" promised:
A superior and domestic product to clean, beautify, and strengthen the hair.

Guarantees prompt disappearance of lice, nits, dandruff, and grime.

Who wouldn't want all that?

Well, first, who could afford it?

The small box cost 30 centimes.  In 1890 in the Département de la Seine (which is to say: Paris and environs), cleaning women earned 1.5 francs a day; seamstresses, shirtmakers, and dressmakers, 2; and women industrial workers, 2.46. As for what 30 centimes could buy: 2 loaves of bread or 3 liters of either wine or milk.

So, who wouldn't want all that? 

Maybe more people than you would think. For one thing, although the use of the national anthem and national colors to sell the product is something that we (alas) have come to regard as commonplace, that wasn't always the case. Even the use of the historic patriotic hymn as national anthem itself was relatively new. Napoleon banned it, as did his monarchical successors, so it was officially adopted again only in 1879, the year before the first official new Bastille Day celebration. Even the creation of the Third Republic in 1870 did not definitively end the struggle between republicans and royalists--as the Dreyfus Affair showed. Using a product called the "Marseillaise" was thus, at least in some quarters, a potentially political statement.

Cleanliness next to godliness?

Using any product to clean the hair, for that matter, was not something that one could take for granted. We are all familiar with the popular notion of the Middle Ages as a time of uncleanliness (in the famous phrase: a thousand years without a bath). In fact, washing and bathing were well established habits in the medieval era. One cannot say the same of some subsequent periods--even including the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What is even more striking is that lack of bathing in France was not confined to the lower orders.

As Eugene Weber shows in his evocative account of France, Fin de Siècle, a combination of factors--prudery, the expense and difficulty of dealing with clean and waste water, and just plain ignorance of hygiene--conspired to make bathing less common than we would expect.

He cites the example of upper-class provincial women who bathed "once a month in summer, never in winter," as well as a contemporary public lecture claiming that most French women never took a bath even once in their lives. Those who did clean themselves with any regularity often just sponged themselves off--through a nightshirt, "for never would we have allowed ourselves to be naked to wash." Continuing this account, he adds, "When changing the chemise, they closed their eyes and crossed themselves. 'I grew up without ever seeing my navel.'"

And hair was the part of the body perhaps least likely to be clean: in Weber's words, "washed seldom if ever." He cites the recollections of the Countess de Pange, whose tresses apparently resembled the ones on the lid of our little box:
At seventeen, I had very long hair which, when loosened, wrapped around me like a mantle. But these beautiful tresses were never washed. They were stiff and filthy. The very word shampoo was ignored. From time to time they rubbed my hair with quinine water.
As for those lice and nits that "La Marseillaise" was supposed to purge: they were ubiquitous. Weber notes, "In the countryside lice and fleas and scabs were so common that popular wisdom considered them essential to the health of children."

So maybe a product that guaranteed clean and beautiful hair was indeed a revolutionary idea.

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