Scented preparation of animal fat used as a hair dressing.
“You look like a wild man, Charles,” Ma said. “You’re standing your hair all on end.” / “It stands on end anyway, Caroline,” Pa answered. “When I was courting you, it never would lie down, no matter how much I slicked it with bear grease.” –Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 9, “A Fire on the Hearth”
Not only was bear fat used in cooking or as a substitute for butter, it was rendered and used as a hair dressing or leather conditioning for boots, belts, and the like.
Commercial preparations of bear grease were sold in decorated glass pots or round printed tins. The grease was scented. The lids to these containers are highly collectible today; they can cost hundreds of dollars for unusual ones. The lid shown at right often fetches over a hundred dollars on ebay. Reproduction lids are also sold. If you don’t want to spend that kind of money and only want the words “bear grease” on something, look for Finland’s Bear Brand leather dressing. It doesn’t contain any bear product – and it’s for leather goods, not hair – but it comes in a pretty cute tin all the same.
Bear grease hair dressing could have been made at home; don’t you wonder if Charles Ingalls made his own when he was courting Caroline Quiner? (Having never smelled bear fat, I also wonder what it smells like.) Here are two historical methods of preparing bear’s grease for use on the hair:
POMADE FOR BEAUTIFYING THE HAIR: GREEN BEAR’S GREASE. Bear’s grease digested with fresh walnut leaves and strained. This is repeated with more leaves till the pomade is sufficiently colored; it is then scented with oil of rosemary, thyme, and bergamot. — H.W. Harper, Universal Recipe Book: Containing Recipes Valuable to Every Tradesman, Artist, Merchant, and Lady (Boston: G.B. Oakes and Company, 1869), 176.
BEAR’S GREASE POMADE. Perfume purified bear’s grease 8 lbs. with rose geranium oil 2-3/4 ounces and vanilla tincture 2 ounces. — Carl Diete, A Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumery (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird and Company, 1892), 289.
bear grease (BW 1; LPH 9)