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A bottle of intrigue – John Strange Winter Hair Food.

September 9, 2020

Usually when I find old chemistry and product bottles I dream about what would have gone on inside the bottle, the formula, the grand claims, the chemistry.  However, this bottle was different, this bottle was strange…

Mrs Arthur Stannard ne Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Palmer of 25 Charleville Road, West Kensington, London went by the pseudonym of John Strange Winters, or at least she did sometimes. Her life spanned a time when educated women were to be quiet on most things and as such, should one want to make noise, one better do it in somebody else’s skin. She lived from 1856-1911.

This particular name appeared first in a book called ‘Cavalry Life Or – Sketches And Stories In Barracks And Out – In Two Volumes – Vol. I in 1881 when Henrietta was 25, following which she used this name frequently in her business and publishing activities. For a young woman in London society to be writing about battle field life would have caused quite a stir at that time. The suffragette movement was about twenty years off reaching its full potential and men were very much the authority on everything. However, this didn’t seem to deter Hentietta who, I can only suppose, either loved pushing boundaries and causing a stir or was too busy working to pay attention to what she SHOULD have been doing…

Henrietta is listed as a feminist, author and journalist. She was the first president of the Writers’ Club (1892), and president of the Society of Women
Journalists (1901-3). Her books were very popular with one, Bootles Baby selling over two million copies! With that kind of exposure and publications under her control, the world was her oyster and John Strange Winter / Henrietta set out to take over the world!

When it comes to the hair balm it appears that she may have been working with a contract manufacturer to handle this. I don’t know for sure but it seems unlikely that such a proficient writer (and one with four children of her own) would have time to cook up, bottle and distribute cosmetic products on her own.

This advert below which, in keeping with her ‘Strangeness’ featured a cat drawn by fellow Londoner artist Louis Wain (who also has an interesting story), mentions the chemists Burgoyne, Burbidges & Co of London.

This company is still in business today in India but during that time was a wholesaler, exporter and producer of many pharmaceutical preparations and patented medicines so maybe the strange hair food was one of them!

In terms of tall tales and fanciful claims the cat-advert above seems playful and innocent enough, especially given that during this time people were selling all kinds of weird stuff. However, we should not be thinking of Henrietta as a straight-laced advertising prude. Nope, the more I looked into her, the more I started to think of her as the late 1800’s and early 1900’s answer to the Kardashians albeit with a better developed grasp of the English language! She inserted herself into books, magazines and cigarette packets proving to everyone that in business, a women’s place is IN YOUR FACE wherever that might be!

Now I’ve only got the one antique bottle from this collection and it dates to roughly 1903-1910 but her brand didn’t stop there. I found this advertorial which talks about her Temple Cream in pretty out-there fanciful ways! It must have been quite common to have hair and scalp issues back then as hair tonics, creams and lotions to prevent balding were quite the buzz! I guess someone like Henrietta with her head full of brown curls would have been rude not to capitalise on her doubly blessed life (creative writing and natural hairiness).

In the extract below I love how here she’s fiercely defending the fact that she makes these at her own home. I do doubt the truth of that but admire her for trying to be a woman who has and does it all!

The above is an advert in a publication called ‘Truth‘ which has its own interesting back story too. It is through this that we find out the social and personal circles of Henrietta include Henry Labouchere (1831-1912), a homophobic writer, politician, theatre owner and publisher responsible for the UK’s laws that resulted in homosexual acts being a crime. Not content with just homophobia, Henry was also an anti-semite and hated the idea of feminism with a passion, so much so that he would ridicule the Suffragettes in his papers. The fact that Henrietta was allowed to publish her advertorials in his magazine meant either he loved money more than his principals or he was a complete hypocrite. Maybe though Henrietta was just very good at playing people to get what she wanted! Henry was friends with another author and news publisher George Augustus Salsa who happened to be married to Henrietta’s sister in law. Both Henry and George were foreign correspondents of the day and as such, crossed paths a lot and to this day, their partnership is known in the trial of Richard Pigott – another interesting back story. Granted much of this information seems neither here nor there for a cosmetic chemist but I do like to place a broader social context around the products we buy and the people who convince us to buy them. After all, these people end up getting into and onto our skin thanks to the products they make and on that note we move to the last piece of this puzzle for now.

It seems that our dear Henrietta was quite the viral marketing expert and was fishing for contact details with every opportunity! Here’s a postcard that is either totally fake or proves that this lady really did go all out to build her empire and become famous!

So did she make it? Did Henrietta build a vast fortune and become one of the leading lights in cosmetic entrepreneurism? Yes and no I guess. As far as writing goes and the role she played in progressing women’s representation in literature I would say she was a success on many counts. However, given that she lived out her life during the time in which women were fighting for and winning the right to vote across different countries of the world AND she had such a visible and powerful platform at her disposal she didn’t use it. She publicly stated that she wasn’t supportive of the womens sufferage movement and had ‘got everything she needed without it’ and in doing so possibly displayed both her privilege and her ego-driven ambition. As for cosmetics well I’m not sure how much of those she sold during her lifetime or how much of her home was overrun by bottles and boxes but she was pretty penniless when she died so maybe she did just lend her name to things, maybe her business acumen wasn’t as good as her skills in self-promotion or maybe she had all the fun and freedom she wanted and didn’t really care much beyond that.

Whatever really went on inside Henrietta’s mind and business during her life, her alter ego, John Strange Winters, persisted way after her death immortalised in bottles of hair food, Lakshmi Face Cream, non-oily hair food and toilet preparations and no, I’ve still no idea what actually was in this bottle but when I do find out I’ll tell you.

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