The Indonesian city of Makassar may not be that well known in the West these days but back in the 1800s it was literally a household name, or at least Macassar Oil was.
Macassar Oil was a product for strengthening and smoothing down hair and was popular with both ladies and gentlemen. The leading brand was Rowland’s Macassar Oil, marketed by a fashionable hairdresser called Alexander Rowland (1747-1823) and his son of the same name.
The son authored a book with the snappy title ‘An Historical, Philosophical, and Practical Essay on The Human Hair Combining a Full and Copious Description of its Growth – Analysis of its Various Properties – the Causes of its Varied Colours – Elucidation of the Different Disorders to Which it is Subject, and the Best Means of Eradicating those Diseases: Interspersed with Numerous Interesting Anecdotes.’
In his surprisingly interesting book he explained the origin of the name Macassar Oil:
The Macassar Oil is so denominated, because it is composed of vegetable ingredients produced from an exotic plantation, appertaining to the Island of Macassar.
He boasted that the Oil had gained the august patronage of the Princess of Wales, the Duke of Sussex and ‘His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias’.
Rowland’s book quoted a letter from a gentleman living in Macassar in 1809:
Macassar is the most beautiful of the Phillipine [sic] Isles. Its climate is delightfully pleasant, its natives harmless and peaceable, its soil luxuriant. Europe has derived, (through the meritorious exertions of Messrs, Rowland and Son) the benefits arising from the well-known produce of the Macassar Tree. I do not wonder that ignorant persons should doubt the virtues of the Macassar Oil, when they call in question the existence of such a place.
This tree’s scientific name is Schleichera oleosa and other common names include Kusum Tree and Ceylon Oak. The oil is extracted from its seeds.
The book contained a number of testimonials from grateful customers claiming the wondrous benefits of this follicular tonic, said to cure baldness, greying, scalp diseases, dandruff, ringworm and even headaches. One such testimonial read:
I have made use of Rowland’s Macassar Oil and it has produced so plentiful a crop that you have mistook my head of hair for a wig.
If Macassar Oil was so effective you have to wonder why it has all but disappeared from the market and why there are still so many bald headed people around. Could it be that some of the claims were exaggerated, or made up?
Personal hygiene was poor in those days. Bath night, and hair washing, was for many a once-a-week event. Ordinary homes did not have running water. Cold water had to be heated on a stove and poured into a copper bathtub, placed in the living room in front of the fireplace.
People would have slapped scented Macassar Oil on their hair to disguise the hair’s greasy appearance and to improve its odour, remembering that nearly all men smoked in those days.
One particularly dirty fellow who refused to wash following the death of his fiancée on their wedding day, was mentioned in Rowland’s book:
The truly eccentric character, the late Nathaniel Bentley, of Leadenhall Street, generally known by the name of “Dirty Dick”, was at one time distinguished for having his hair dressed in the extremity of fashion; but in his later days how altered! – his hair which was totally grey stood up “like the quills of the fretful porcupine,” forming at once a singular and almost frightful spectacle.
I used to frequent Dirty Dicks pub in nearby Bishopsgate many years ago which, inspired by Bentley’s filthy home, included decorations like cobwebs and dead cats.
To prevent the greasy Macassar Oil from ruining the furniture, people used to place removable and washable covers called antimacassars on the backs and arms of armchairs and sofas. I remember seeing antimacassars in people’s houses when I was young but not surprisingly they are out of fashion now except perhaps on trains in places like China, Vietnam and Japan.
Macassar Oil has made something of a comeback in Britain in recent years as beard oil due to the current popularity of going unshaven but this stuff is made mainly from coconut oil rather than Macassar Oil Tree.
Since I was in Makassar recently and I am in need of something to restore my sadly depleted hairline I thought I would see if I could find any Macassar Oil. Nearly every souvenir shop and supermarket sold locally made oil but it was of the medicated rubbing variety (minyak gosok cap tawon) for relief of aches and pains rather than for promoting lustrous locks. It seems that hair oil is no longer a famous local product. I guess I’ll just have to wear a hat!