After the Exxon Valdez dumped more than 10 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Alaska, hairdresser Phil McCrory got an idea.
He gathered up human hair from his salon, stuffed it into a pair of pantyhose and dunked the bundle into a solution of motor oil and water. The hair sopped up the oil — a discovery that has since inspired environmentalists to create “hair blankets” to clean up oil spills.
It’s not the most bizarre use of hair that Kurt Stenn describes in his new book, Hair: A Human History, or even the most surprising. From the felted wool covers of tennis balls to the horse-tail hair of a violin’s bow, Stenn, a former dermatologist and hair follicle scientist, digs up the myriad ways that hair has threaded its way into humans’ lives — and history.
A thriving wool trade starting in the 13th century, for example, helped some Italians amass enough wealth to later support famous artists of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo. And in 17th century Europe, beaver fur was so in demand (felted hats were a must for stylish gentlemen) that traders hunted beavers to near extinction.
Stenn jams an encyclopedia’s worth of material into a mere 256 pages, all the while shedding facts like a golden retriever sheds fur. But the book has more than just history. Stenn details the molecular biology of hair, those packed piles of cells that push out of nearly every square inch of human skin (except for the palms, soles and a few other areas). Hair conditioner, he explains, works by leaving positively charged molecules on strands, so that they repel each other rather than tangling together.
Stenn roots his story in science, discussing evolution, development and disease, among other topics. (The book could give readers a sure win for any hair category on Jeopardy!.) But Hair shines when Stenn steps out of the lab and into the world. He visits a wigmaker’s workshop in London, tours a modern barbering institute in Pennsylvania and learns about synthetic fibers at the laboratories of a Tokyo-based wig company.
These interludes are subtle highlights in a densely woven tale. But throughout, Stenn manages to convey a sense of wonder for a seemingly mundane material so tough, so strong and so versatile that it can be used for virtually anything — even mopping oil from the sea.