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Hair Dye History: Crazy Ways Ancient People Colored Their Hair 

Humans have changed quite a bit over the last few thousand years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the universal desire to alter our appearances—even through methods that are strange, risky, or downright gross. From ashes, to leaches, to lead, ancient cultures had a wide variety of ways to lighten or darken the hair. Below are some hair coloring methods that have, thankfully, faded. 

Going Blonde in Ancient Rome

A Roman prostitute was required to obtain a license, pay taxes, and wear blonde hair as a mark of her profession. If she wasn’t naturally blonde—which most Italy-based Romans weren’t—her options were to wear a wig, or lighten her hair with a mixture made from ashes of plant and nuts. 

It wasn’t until the Roman conquest of Northern Europe areas that blonde hair became fashionable among the higher classes of Romans. Since the hair was mainly derived from the heads of prisoners of war or captured slaves, it became a symbol of Rome’s subjugation of the “barbarians,” and was woven into intricate, expensive wigs. To obtain the gold look, both women and men started to apply bleaching agents to their hair, and wealthier people could even afford to sprinkle actual gold dust on their tresses. Yellow flower pollen and crushed yellow petals was another, cheaper alternative. 

Going Dark in Ancient Rome 

While blonde was fashionable, gray hair was not, so graying Romans turned to hair dye to darken their once-raven locks. Once popular recipe used a mixture made from ashes, boiled walnut shells, and earthworms. A less-safe method involved dipping lead combs into vinegar, then running it through the hair, leaving a dark residue behind. This method proved to be extremely toxic, however, so the Romans experimented with new colorants. One popular method involved fermenting leeches for two months in a lead vessel, grinding them into a paste, and working the mixture into the hair. Like us, the Romans were unafraid of suffering a little for beauty. 

Strawberry-Blonde Vikings 

Our popular image of a Viking may be that of a horned, fearsome, grizzled brute; but much historical evidence has shown that when they weren’t raiding, Vikings were quite the ladies’ men. Archeological digs of Viking burial grounds have uncovered cosmetic and grooming tools, and surviving writings confirm that Vikings were remarkably hygienic for their time. In fact, Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin lamented that ancient English men were emulating Viking style by ‘trimming their hair and beard like the pagans’.

Ancient writings also inform us that Vikings considered light and blonde hair to be extremely beautiful, and they used lye made from goat fat and ashes to achieve the look. Ibn Fadlan, a contemporary Arabic writer, observed that the Norsemen bleached their beards to a saffron yellow, and Pliny the Elder noted that the fat-and-ash mixture was used to redden the hair and beard. Therefore, we know that while style preferences differed, the method—and desire for a different look—was much the same. 

Want to Get Expert Hair Coloring in 2020? 

At Artisan Hair, we use professional dyes—not fermented leeches—to help you get a fresh new look. Stop by and see us at our Cary hair salon, and we’ll use our expertise to make you the most beautiful Viking princess in all the land. Click here to book your appointment.

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