1999 By Digger Odell Publications

"But if a woman have LONG hair, it is a glory to her . . ." I Cor 11:15

Bears and humans have had a special connection over the millennia. The earliest known religions were those of the bear cult. Evidence of ritual burials and reverence for bear remains has been seen in nearly every culture of the world. Unfortunately for the bears, this relationship has usually had dire consequences for them.

Aboriginal people sought animal fat not only for the concentrated energy source it provided, but for many other uses as well. Native peoples in very cold climates found they needed high levels of fat for both energy and for insulation. An Inuit recipe for Bear Fat Pastry given verbally as "hand full of flour, pinch of salt, 3 fingers of bear fat", described as making a rich pastry, especially if the fat comes from "a little black bear who was eating berries". The intake of fat not only helped them regulate temperature but also fats help to make certain vitamins available for use in the body. Early people knew not every animal would provide sufficient fat to live on. "Rabbit starvation" refers to the fact that rabbits and hares have such lean meat that it is possible to starve to death even if large amounts are eaten.

Over hundreds of centuries people began devising new ways to use animal fats. They learned to use animal fats and grease as a fuel, for cooking, for light, in medicinal preparations, as a waterproofing, as an insect repellent, and for cosmetics. Different cultures with access to different types of animal fat, developed different uses and ways to process the fat. This was true in all parts of the world. In the Arctic, seal and whale oil was extracted by the use of a blubber pounder and kept in skin bags to prevent its spoiling. It was used in lighting, for food and in other ways.

The native Americans used a variety of animal fats for various purposes. One early hostage account relates how the blond hair of one of the captives was colored with a mixture of bear grease and charcoal. Buffalo or bear’s grease was mixed with blood, red ochre or charcoal to make the paints used in pictographs, and for paint to decorate the body and hair.

Circa 1840-1850 - aqua, open pontiled with rolled lips.

In this country, early settlers used fats left over from their butchering or from cooking to make soap and candles. The fat would be placed in a large pot with an equal amount of water and allowed to melt slowly so as not to burn. After a number of hours, the liquid was run through a sieve to remove any cooked meat particles. Again water would be added and the mixture boiled for another four hours or so. The mixture, when left to cool, separated into two or three distinct layers. The bottom layer would be a protein laden water or jelly substance, the middle layer a fat/water grainy suspension and the purified fat, tallow, (fat from beef and buffalo was called tallow while that from pigs was called lard) would rise to the top where is could be easily removed and washed. Those of you with cooking experience know how the fats rise to the surface and solidify after cooling in a stew or spaghetti sauce.

Observations of the Native American use of buffalo and bear fats were not lost on the Europeans both here and abroad. It’s properties were investigated by some the leading scientists of the day and it was hailed by some as having particular value as a medicine and/or hair preparation. According to some sources, bear’s oil was being advertised for use on the hair in this county as early as 1822. By the late 1830’s bear’s grease and bear’s oil were one of the more popular pomades for the hair. Some used it to give a sleek look to the hair while others were sold on its regenerative powers for restoring the hair to its natural color or even simply restoring the hair.

Companies who were already involved in making fat or oil based products, such as soap and perfume makers, dominated the trade in bear’s oil. These entrepreneurs were frequently chemists who used their knowledge to produce, drugs, medicines, chemicals and perfumery articles, fancy soaps, shaving soaps or dental products. Their equipment for making these goods, along with their knowledge of perfume science, would have allowed them to process the bear’s grease into marketable products. Bear’s grease was advertised as "highly perfumed", not surprising when you consider the primitive conditions under which the raw materials must have been collected. It was not uncommon to use rancid fats.

Among the biggest American suppliers of bear products were the companies on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, the largest being Jules Hauel and Eugene Roussel de Prunay. In 1842 Roussell purchased a shop at 114 Chestnut. An early advertising poster for Roussel’s business, owned by The Free Library of Philadelphia, shows the front of his store with a stuffed bear in the window. In 1843, he advertised "Roussel’s Bear’s Oil" warranted pure and from a " fine fat bear" caught by a "Mr. Choshley near Gray’s ferry" with this and another bear he was fattening, he provided the public with a large supply of pure and genuine bear’s oil in bottles. He states the bear’s oil of his competitor’s was brought to the city in barrels from the West and adulterated with lard and other fatty substances. He also states "bears wanted, highest prices paid". Even by this early date, it seems, bears were getting hard to come by.

Xavier Bazin was for eight years head of the perfume and soap department of Roussel’s business before setting up his own business in the 1850s. Bazin ‘s business of evidently quite successful judging from the number of bottles known with his name on them. He sold bear’s grease and bear’s oil along with many other cosmetic preparations.

At left are three examples of
Bear's Oil Bottles dating from
the 1830's to the late 1850's.

The bottle in the middle has
an embossed bear and is much
earlier than the other two.

There is a great variety in Bear's Oil bottles. But very few
have a proprietor's name embossed.

Jules Hauel began business in the same city in 1839 with a vegetable hair dye and fancy soaps he created at his perfume factory. Hauel grew the business rapidly. In 1851, he built a $70,000 establishment at 170 Chestnut, several doors down from his earlier place of business at 120 Chestnut St. He put up his bear’s grease in highly decorated ceramic pots. He eventually expanded his product line to become the most prolific user of transfer printed wares in the United States.

Success in the bear’s oil and bear’s grease business hinged upon a dependable supply of bears something which became increasingly more difficult to obtain, unlike vegetable based medicinal or cosmetic products. In the early days, supplies must have be plentiful when bear populations in the United States numbered in the millions. As the frontier pushed farther west, human population increases, the rapid building of towns and clearing farmland resulted in severe habitat loss that would have made the procurement of bears for oil not only more difficult, but more expensive. By the mid 1840’s merchants would be depending on supplies of bears killed in the West or in Canada.
It seems reasonable to suppose that the scarcity would have resulted in some cases of the bear grease being doctored or diluted with other oils or fats as claimed by Rousell. This is further suggested by advertisers who apparently felt they had to bill their products as "genuine bear’s oil". No doubt that some of the bear’s oil being served up was probably from beef or oxen and not bear at all.

Supplies of the genuine article would be inconsistent. It seems likely that this preparation would have been unavailable at times in various places. Advertisements support this notion. Often the advertisement was an announcement of a recently arrived shipment. The advertisement shown, taken from the Cincinnati Daily, January 19, 1846 indicates such a circumstance andidentifies the source of the bears for the oil as being from Canada.

It may have been in response to these shortages that firms experimented with other animal based fats for their hair products. Beef tallow was moderately popular and ox marrow was also used. Neither seemed to catch the public’s imagination as had bear’s oil or grease. Both appear to have been short-lived, and quickly replaced by the surfeit of new products in the growing market of liquid hair restorers blooming in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s.

Nearly all known embossed bear’s oil bottles are pontiled. That no smooth based specimens are known suggests a rapid demise in the trade after 1860. The bulk of bear fat products appears and disappears within a short 20-25 year span beginning in the late 1830s and ending in the late 1850s. It was probably a combination of factors including a loss of public interest, and lack of availability that bear’s oil traipsed toward oblivion. The product could still be purchased into the 1880’s but the formula probably no longer included pure bear’s oil, if any. But…the story is far from over….

Does history repeat itself? Well it might seem so in respect to the story of the bears. At one time bears roamed over the whole continental United States. Today they are threatened in the lower 48 states. Fewer than 1,000 animals are left in this region.

Ad Below taken from
Cincinnati Daily Jan. 19, 1843

Bear's Oil


Of all preparations for the hair or whiskers, nothing equals the oil prepared from Bear’s Grease. In most instances, it restores the hair to the bald and will effectually preserve it from falling off in any event. It was long noted by such eminent physicians and chemists as the late Sir Humphry Davy and Sir Henry Tallford, that pure Bear’s Grease, properly prepared, was the best thing ever discovered for the preservation of the hair, or restoring it when bald. Messrs. A.B.&D. Sands have saved no expense in getting the genuine Bear’s Grease from Canada, and elsewhere, and have prepared it in such a manner that the Oil, combined with its high perfume, renders it indispensable for the toilet and dressing room of all.

Prepared and sold by A.B.&D. Sands, New York.
A fresh supply just received by

G.F. Thomas & Co.,

147 Main Street, bet. 3d and 4th sts., opposite Gazette Office. Jan 19



Estimates range from 500,000-600,000 bears presently living in North America, the overwhelming majority in Canada. Habitat loss, has had the greatest impact on bear populations, but over-hunting has contributed to population decreases to levels which threaten extinction. Legal hunting of 40,000 black bears occurs each year in North America.

Now these animals face a new threat. Since the early 1980’s, investigations conducted by wildlife law enforcement agencies have revealed "a wide-ranging North American trade in black bear parts" and revealed a number of poaching operations for black bears in the U.S. and Canada. Black bear parts can be sold in some states, provinces, and territories. Bear parts have become big business. The demand for it coming from overseas. Today, bears are being killed for their fur, claws, teeth, gall bladders, meat, brain, bone, blood, spinal cord and paws. These bear parts are believed to be effective in treating fever, swelling, some cancers, burns, Internal bleeding, heart and liver diseases, convulsions, stomach ulcers and pain in the eyes and limbs.

Bear paws, fat and meat are used for food. In 1991, a bowl of bear paw soup cost up to $1500 in some up-scale Taiwanese restaurants catering to wealthy clientele looking for unusual or endangered animals.

Perhaps more than any part, gall bladders have dominated the news. The primary markets for gall bladders appear to be South Korea, China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, but they are also sold in Asian communities in the U.S. and Canada." Bear gall bladders are more valuable than gold in the orient with estimates from $6,000 - $18,000 dollars being paid for one gall bladder. The gall bladders are dried and crushed to powder to be used in potions and medicines. The gall bladders contain bile salts which have been used in traditional Chinese medicine since the 6th century AD. The efficacy of this medicine had been documented. One component of the bile salt, ursodeoxycholic acid, is currently being synthesized in this country from cow bile and is prescribed for dissolving gallstones. China, North and South Korea, now extract bile from living bears being raised on "bear farms", some under gruesome conditions.

Bear populations around the world are being threatened by the demand. With an Asian bear worth $10,000 dead in Japan, they are worth even more in Korea. With the declining populations in Asia, attention has turned to North American bear populations. Since the late 1980s, wildlife officers have been finding dead bears with their paws cut off and their gall bladders removed. Smuggling has been on the rise. Gall bladders, when dried look like a dried date and have been found as hidden contraband in a box of dates. A shipment of 173 black bear gall bladders from Canada was confiscated at the Anchorage international airport.

Response from the government has done little to reverse the trend toward extinction. Some states have passed legislation in the last decade and a few stings by state and government agents have resulted in at least one arrest and conviction in Utah. In Asia, demand is still strong. Sadly, it seems that the bears aren’t out of the woods yet.