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Barry's Tricopherous for the Skin and Hair Bottle

Counted among the assorted hair tonics shipped aboard the SS Republic were 83 bottles of Barry’s Tricopherous for The Skin and Hair. The self-declared “Professor,” Alexander C. Barry, was a New York wigmaker who had never actually received any academic degree. Barry’s Tricopherous for The Skin and Hair was nonetheless a popular product. The “Professor” claimed that his father established the Tricopherous formula in 1801, although this too may be another Barry tale. The product was first sold in the United States around 1842.

Advertisements for Barry’s hair preparation included popular trade cards, typically featuring a beautiful woman with luxurious, long-flowing hair. The ads claimed the product was “guaranteed to restore the hair to bald heads and to make it grow thick, long and soft.”

The now empty glassware had once contained Barry’s alcohol-based formula combined with some castor oil and other fragrant oils. The product’s most active ingredient, though, was its one-percent tincture of cantharides. Cantharides came from the dried, crushed bodies of the blister beetle or Spanish fly. When threatened, the beetle produces a caustic irritant called cantharidin. The theory was that this substance would stimulate blood supply to the scalp, which in turn would promote hair-follicle growth. Barry claimed that “if the pores of the scalp are clogged, or if the blood and other fluids do not circulate freely . . . the result is scurf, dandruff, shedding of the hair, grayness, dryness and harshness of the ligaments, and entire baldness. . . .”

“Stimulate the skin” he claimed, with Tricopherous, and “the torpid vessels, recovering their activity, will annihilate the disease.” Cantharidin, however, is today recognized as a toxic substance that can cause severe gastrointestinal disturbances if ingested, sometimes leading to convulsions, coma, and possible death. Still, Barry’s formula was sold well into the 20th century. Even today, a search of the internet yields sites selling modern versions of Barry’s Tricopherous hair tonic, marketed as “based” on the original formula.

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