Was Crazy Scientist Hair Normal At One Time?
October 25, 2017 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I was idly reading this article that mentions Einstein and I see a man in fairly refined clothing and posture with ... really wild hair. Is there a way to know if this hair was normal or not at the time? Was it viewed as "Crazy Scientist" hair at the time, or were mores different? Were hair care products different at the time? Was that a common style at the time for men of a certain class? I acknowledge that this question may be hard to answer, but it really jumped out at me.
posted by windowbr8r to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that he had a genetic condition now known as "uncombable hair syndrome." Yes, that is a real thing, and so, no, this was not a style at the time. I think there has always been the trope of a sort of rumpled professor type, and his look was so iconic that it's kind of stuck as a stereotype or short hand for brilliant absent minded professor.
posted by goggie at 11:26 AM on October 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

I can show you dozens of men from any decade since, sporting similar wild hair. And most of them would be scientists. Some women scientists do it too.

Honestly, I sometimes have hair a bit like that, and I am a scientist.

I always figured it was some combination of not giving a fuck, and being able to ‘get away’ with it professionally, but I suppose the fact that many science heros have that look may help it persist.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:28 AM on October 25, 2017

The idea of mad scientists predates Einstein, but if I were to speculate, I'd say the specific imagery with the hair coincided with the advent of movies, which coincided roughly with the advent of Einstein, who had such distinctive hair that it could almost serve as shorthand for "This guy is like Einstein." So you got iconic imagery like this guy and this guy, which solidified the correlation, and it was such an effective the 'mad scientist' point across for a minimum of effort that it just kind of stuck.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:47 AM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

(I don't think Einstein had uncombable hair syndrome. First, that is very rare, and almost always goes with blond-ish hair colors like so, and two, he only sported "mad scientist" hair later in life, and we have plenty of examples showing young Einstein with hair that, while perhaps short of "well coiffed, is certainly combed and displaying normal human hair grain. The only "source" I can find for Einstein having uncombable hair is the Daily Mail, and even they call it a "rumor", which imo doesn't hold up to scrutiny. )
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:49 AM on October 25, 2017 [15 favorites]

Not precisely crazy hair, but perhaps a good data point is The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, which has been going strong since the early aughts. Club lore seems to indicate that crazy hair is a bit of a science in-joke.
posted by answergrape at 11:49 AM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Inventing the Egghead has a pretty long discussion (pp.65-67). It argues that his hair fit into the more general "intellectual longhair" category, which was then more identified with artsy rather than scientific types; i.e., "crazy conductor hair."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:56 AM on October 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

This may be a bit tangential (mods, please delete if so), but I recently heard a lecture about Victorian beards - the speaker, Kathryn Hughes, has a book out about Victorian bodies. Might give some information about hair care products available to Einstein, if there were any.
posted by paduasoy at 11:58 AM on October 25, 2017

Perhaps this a question for Professor Poliakoff.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:08 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I mean definitely people in general had frizzier hair in the past than they do now, mostly due to changes in expectations around hair care products. If you watch a TV show even just from the 80s or 90s you'll see a level of flyaways that would be wholly unacceptable in TV stars nowadays.
posted by mskyle at 12:09 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you look at images of Einstein, he appears to have perfectly normal and well-groomed hair for most of his life. It started getting longer in the 1930s when he was in his 50s, and didn't get consistently disheveled until it went all white in the 1940s.
posted by slkinsey at 12:09 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know about "crazy scientist hair", but your question reminded me of my Real Analysis professor, George Mackey, who was perennially disheveled, and who shed chalkdust from his tweed sportsjacket the way Pig-Pen in Peanuts shed dirt. This is the most evocative photo I found from a quick search (Mackey on the right).
posted by mr vino at 1:00 PM on October 25, 2017

This is a photo of Einstein at his 70th birthday with a group of his fellow scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Presumably if anyone else was going to have crazy scientist hair it would be these guys, and none seem to.

Here he is in a classroom in Europe pre-war. Still the only crazy hair guy in the photo.

Finally, this is a photo of Einstein and his sister Maja, taken in 1939.

The Private Lives of Albert Einstein (a fairly authoritative biography), notes this, in relation to his early relationship with his second wife, Elsa (this would have been around 1910-1915) "Equally motherly were Elsa's attempt to improve his personal hygiene. During his stay she gave him a hairbrush, which he referred to as "the bristly girlfriend", and instructions to pay more attention to his appearance. Likea proud child mastering a new challenge, he subsequently issued frequent bulletins on his progress. 'Hairbrush is used regularly, also remaining ablutions are being carried out rigorously,' he assured her in November."

It certainly wasn't a fashion he was following. Einstein was notoriously slack about his personal appearance and personal hygiene throughout his life, particularly as he got older, and most particularly after his move to Princeton.
posted by anastasiav at 1:11 PM on October 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

I had heard stories that he purposely eliminated anything that took too many of his brain cycles away from the problems he was investigating, including types of soap:
that he disapproved of the Eighteenth Amendment because he believed the saloon to be an important centre for the exchange of ideas; that he uses the same soap for shaving and washing because of a firm conviction that two kinds of soap needlessly complicate life.

- 1933 New Yorker article about him
So perhaps his lack of hair-styling was on purpose.
posted by jillithd at 2:22 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was looking through a Canadian "who's who" book that was printed sometimes in the late 1800s, and I was struck by how much messy hair there was. It was as if they didn't realize that they should comb the back, too, that sort of thing. Lots of frizziness and fuzziness and general disorder.

Nothing quite as extreme as older Einstein, though, that I remember.
posted by clawsoon at 4:05 PM on October 25, 2017

A lady professor I work with and I share hairtype with Einstein - she has gone steely grey while mine are on their way in. What was once unruly but tamable wavy hair with ringlets on occasion seems to turn grey and wiry - she said her hair was just like mine prior to being mostly grey. Most of my greys, unless trapped, spring out from the rest of my hair like some bizarre halo. So we just figured it was once tamable but when it went grey rapidly stopped being something you could brush/oil into submission.

That and the 'run your hands through your hair' reaction to wrangling words and ideas.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:04 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

FWIW, my experience is similar to geek's. What little hair I have left is gray, and doesn't have the same texture and feel as the hair of my youth.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:32 AM on October 26, 2017

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