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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breck's Shampoo

(A World War I-era advertisement in a Springfield, Mass. theater program.)

An earlier version of the following post was previously published in History Magazine (July 2006).


There was a time when a Massachusetts firefighter learned firsthand the axiom, “necessity is the mother of invention”. It served John H. Breck well, though not in the manner he intended, when he developed his Breck Shampoo.

Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1877, Breck was only 14 years old when he started work in one of Holyoke's factories. When he was about 19, Breck's family moved across the Connecticut River to Chicopee, where he joined the fire department. At the age of 21, he was reported to have been the youngest fire captain in the country.

It was about this time that Breck began studying chemistry in his off hours under an Amherst professor, which led to Breck developing a formula for shampoo. He was really searching for a scalp treatment for himself. Still in his 20s, Breck was going bald.

The first commercial shampoos had been developed some 10 to 15 years earlier in Europe, but they had not gained much popularity in North America. Washing hair, when it was done at all, was usually accomplished with a bar of gray-colored soap. This soap was obtained from the wandering neighborhood soap-and-bone man. This fellow went door to door for bones, to which the women of the neighborhood responded with their saved meat bones to trade for hunks of soap, which was produced by local rendering companies. The animal fat was treated with an alkali, and presto, gray soap. Some people, especially in rural communities, continued to make their own soap at home.

The soap was used on dishes, the floors, the dog, and humans, including their hair. Breck blamed in this soap for his hair loss.

In 1908, John H. Breck decided to give up firefighting, and opened an office in Springfield, Massachusetts. As a “hair specialist”, he began with three employees, and by 1920, local hairdressers began using his preparations in their salons.

When Breck's pH-balanced liquid soap shampoo was marketed, it was one of the very first in the US, and it revolutionized the cosmetics industry. By 1929, the company was incorporated as John H. Breck, Inc. The business grew rapidly in the 1940s and 1950s as hair care products became a major industry, and went on to gross millions of dollars in more than 70 countries.

Breck still went bald, though. One presumes that his success made him rich enough not to mind.

Remember the "Breck Girls"? Know any? Let us know.

For more on the Breck Girls Collection of artwork at the Smithsonian Institution, see this website.

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