The word “tonic” calls up the image of a carnival huckster atop a crate hawking the latest miracle snake oil. We’re dubious. But considering that this particular hair tonic formula has existed for decades basically unchanged, we had to give it a spin. Plus, who can resist this 1946 ad (below), touting Vitalis as the answer to a bad case of “whirly locks?" (Hard to believe that a guy with an accentuated Clark Kent forehead curl couldn’t get a date, but hey, it was a different time).
We set off for the corner drugstore to investigate. Seven fluid ounces of Vitalis Hair Tonic promising to make hair “more manageable and healthy looking” ran us $5.30.
After showering, we splashed a small amount of the thin yellow liquid into our palm. Part rubbing alcohol, part Pine-Sol, and all grandpa, the smell made a strong—and mostly appealing—first impression. At the very least, the stuff will wake you up in the morning. With primary ingredients like “PPG-40 Butyl Ether” and label warnings like “contents flammable,” it’s a real eye-opener.
As for the hold and texture, both are minimal. What the tonic has in spades is shine and softness. Our hair felt smooth neat, and soft, but we weren’t able to style or shape it in any way. It lived up to its greaseless claim and as for those “whirly locks,” it created a few where there previously were none. Specifically, a single curled forehead lock befitting of the Man of Steel appeared on our forehead by the end of the day. It gave the ladies at the bar a good chuckle.
Note: While hair tonic hails from the era depicted in "Mad Men," our sources tell us that Draper’s hair is actually a mix of Redken hair gel and TRI Professional Haircare spray. Tonic would likely end in disaster for Draper anyway—the label reads: “Do not smoke until hair is fully dry.” Good luck with that one, Don.
If you’re looking for an ultimate whirly locks tamer (i.e. a lot of hold), Oribe Original Pomade is a good choice. If just a little hold and a healthy amount of texture, try Billy Jealousy’s Ruckus Hair Cream.
For a full list of Birchbox Man’s Retro Drugstore Scores, go here.