Monday, December 14, 2015

Bear Grease: Adirondack Slickum

BearGreaseRicksTrivia question #1: Can you identify the source of the following song lyrics snippet?

“Pearl, Pearl, Pearl, come be my loving girl; Don’t you marry Lester Flatt, He slicks his hair with possum fat, Change your name to Mrs. Earl Scruggs.”

Trivia question #2: What is the term applied to doilies that once appeared so often on the backs of chairs and sofas? (Or for you old-timers, on the backs of davenports.) Trivia question #3: What was the purpose of those doilies?

The three questions and two of the answers are tenuously related to last week’s piece on Allen’s famous bear fight up in Keene, and are linked to a world-famous product that was widely touted for preventing baldness, restoring hair growth, softening leather, cooking, hair styling, predicting the weather, thwarting attacks by all manner of biting insects, preventing frostbite, treating and healing skin injuries, sealing out the elements, and a bunch of other uses.

The answer to the first question is the Beverly Hillbillies, and more specifically, the episode featuring a competition to win Pearl Bodine’s heart. (Listen to the actual performance here.) The answer to number two (prepare to learn a new word here) is “antimacassar.” As for number three, the purpose of an antimacassar was to prevent the transfer of hair oils and treatments to the chair or sofa fabric.

The questions, answers, and product uses listed above are either directly or loosely linked to an old Adirondack standard: bear grease.

To explain the Beverly Hillbillies connection: I never forgot that song, especially the line that says, “Don’t you marry Lester Flatt, He slicks his hair with possum fat.” When I was younger, I took it to mean using possum fat was disgusting, but there’s a pretty good chance Earl was simply pointing at possum fat as a lower-class hair-control method compared to the one used by jet-setters, “players,” and movie stars – good ol’ bear grease.

No kidding.  Bear-grease concoctions were the hair-control standard for at least a couple of centuries, an accepted part of gettin’ all gussied up for the ladies. Ladies, in fact, used it too. Some woodsmen used it straight, but in the commercial versions, other elements were introduced, including fragrances a bit more pleasing than basic bear scent, which to non-bears is hardly a stimulant.

I can remember my grandmothers pinning homemade doilies to the backs of couches and chairs. My presumption was that it was done simply for decorative purposes, but one grandma informed me I was only half-right. The doilies looked nice, yes, but they were to prevent “greasy kid stuff” (like bear-grease compounds) from staining the furniture. (An aside here about the term “antimacassar”: Macassar oil was popularized in England in the late 1700s as a hair tonic and dressing. Antimacassar became the name of cloth items used as barriers between furniture and greasy or oily heads.)

Bear grease was an Adirondack standard, used by housewives, camp cooks, and guides as the best shortening for all kinds of cooking. It made boots and other leather items more soft and supple, was used in lamps, was slathered on to keep biting bugs at bay, and served as axel grease. It was also a staple of all barbershops, the great meeting place where men shared news, gossip, and tall tales, where, as often as not, hunting stories were the focus, particularly confrontations like Anson Allen’s in Keene.

An article from 1891 about an Elizabethtown barber described the typical visit to any Adirondack tonsorial parlor. “When you enter his shop, he will talk bear from the time he puts the lather on your face until he puts the bear grease on your hair, and one man last summer said there would be a delicate propriety in his printing an illustrated advertisement showing a bear shaving himself.”

1969AdvertMirrorLkInnYears earlier, an amusing story made the rounds, telling of a trained dancing bear (common street entertainment at the time) that went everywhere, with one exception: it refused to walk past a barbershop, sensing that his own lard could someday be for sale on the premises.

Bear grease (or bear’s grease) was used as a hair pomade well into the 1900s by everyone from Adirondack woodsmen to movie stars. When average folks used it, there were sometimes whispers of “putting on airs.” For those in the upper social echelons, it was used daily on scalp hair, and often as a mustache treatment. But among the famous, it’s relatively certain that Albert Einstein was a non-user.

The product’s great popularity spawned advertisements touting genuine bear grease, but more often than not, the offerings were fraudulent potions consisting mostly of lard, pig fat, and other materials. This was fortunate for bears. Otherwise, they might have been slaughtered on a massive scale … at least until Flatt & Scruggs steered mountain folk towards possum fat.

Photos: Bear’s Grease for the hair (courtesy of Rick’s Bottle Room); a creative ad for the Mirror Lake Inn, Lake Placid (1969, Adirondack Daily Enterprise)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. David Thomas-Train says:

    Trivia question 2: Antimacassar, whose purpose was to keep the gents’ greasy hair pomade, a product called “Macassar” off of the chair or sofa or settee upholstery

  2. Terry says:

    Doilies were all over the furniture in my aunts/uncles homes in the 40s and 50s!!

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