Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

As P.G. Wodehouse once wrote, “What’s wrong with flies being in ointment, what harm do they do and who wants ointment anyway?” Perhaps he was unfamiliar with the following verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Dead flies cause the apothecary’s ointment to send forth a stink.” 

A fly in the ointment is an idiom that some say means a small flaw that spoils everything

The Oxford English Dictionary, the Big Daddy of Words, says says the expression means “some small or trifling circumstance which spoils the enjoyment of a thing or detracts from its agreeableness.”

Regular readers know I like to tinker with definitions from dozens of sources and build my own composites

I agree with those who say a fly in the ointment is an unpleasantness that detracts from a larger positive, but not with those who say it ruins everything. I also agree with those who say the expression describes a drawback that was not immediately apparent, a situation that would arise only after you used enough ointment to discover the fly buried inside. This would be annoying, but not as much as a fly in your soup or biting into an apple and finding only half a worm.

Ointments are defined by refined folks as unctuous medicinal salves for external application

Plain speakers call them greasy substances that are smeared on wounded areas of the body, especially burns and rashes, for relief of itching and burning sensations. Pomades were used as ointments for years before someone decided smearing it on the head was a good idea.

Pomades are perfumed ointments or oils applied to the hair to give it a shiny, slicked-down look

The word comes from the French pomme, a word meaning “apple.” The name was chosen because the original ointment recipe contained the pulp of mashed apples. Animal fat was the primary ingredient in most balms and ointments and bear fat was preferred by many for its extreme holding power. The apple mush was added to the pomade in the hopes its pleasant scent would cover up the smell of dead animal parts.

The Roman goddess of the orchard was named Pomona

She watched over and protected fruit trees. In 1875, her name was chosen as the winning entry in a name-the-city contest for a town that had no fruit trees. Once the water and the railroads came, Pomona, California became known as “the Queen of the Citrus Belt.”

Madame de Pompadour was a mistress of King Louis XV of France

She popularized a hairstyle created by sweeping her very long hair straight up from the forehead and off her face, creating a giant rolled nest of hair. Her attendants were able to fashion her elaborate designs only by using lots of animal fats to glue the hair in place. This got to stinking as you might imagine, so they powdered her hair with wheat, clay and chalk and sprayed it with perfume. The powder and perfume may have masked some of the odor, but the whole greasy mess was a breeding ground for vermin and insects that feed on lard and decomposing organic matters, including flies.

Macassar oil

An Indonesian invention, it was popularized by a London barber who used it on his male clients back in the days when barbers also removed teeth and did bloodlettings. His was made from coconut and palm oils scented with ylang-ylang, a flower that smells like jasmine, custard and automobile tires. His primary selling point was his claim that using it daily delayed the ravages of baldness. Desperate men eagerly slathered it on their heads, and the plastered-down look flourished.

The oil was named after Makasar, a port city in central Indonesia

One fly in the ointment was that anything that the wearer’s oil-drenched hair touched was permanently stained, especially the backs of the upholstered chairs of the day. A clever inventor came up with the antimacassar, a small crocheted doily that covered the chair on the back and on the arms where the wearer was certain to put his oily hands. Today you see antimacassars on trains, planes and buses, all made of paper.

The pompadour faded away, as all fashions do

But as fashions go, it came around again, this time with the Gibson Girl of the 1920s. Charles Dana Gibson used pen and ink to draw his personification of what he considered to be the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness. For 20 years his drawings of Gibson Girls were published in Life magazine. The Gibson Girl was an upper-class woman, always perfectly dressed in the latest fashions and always refined, independent and athletic.

Millions of women across America eagerly adopted the look of a girl who didn’t even exist

Some say the first Gibson Girl was a portrait he drew of Evelyn Nesbit, a famous model of the times. Others say Gibson’s wife Irene was his inspiration. In interviews, Gibson said the Gibson Girl was not just one person – she was the striking modern woman he saw on the streets, at the theaters, going everywhere and doing everything. For two decades she was the national beauty standard for American women. How’s that for a fad with legs?

The pompadour returned in the 1950s, this time among men

In the 1950s and 60s, men with heavily oiled hair combed into pompadours were called greasers. John Travolta’s character Danny Zuko and his T-Bird sidekicks wore pompadours in the film Grease, aping the look of most of the early rock and roll singers – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and many more.

Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb

Click here to see Edd Byrnes and Connie Stevens sing their smash hit on American Bandstand in 1959 in front of a screaming studio audience of female juveniles. Antihero James Dean may have been a Rebel Without a Cause, but he was not a rebel without a pompadour.

Who was Dapper Dan?

  • Dapper Dan was Everett’s pomade of choice in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Dapper Dan Charities is Pittsburg’s oldest sports charity.
  • Dapper Dan was a thoroughbred American racehorse known for putting on a late charge to finish second.
  • Dapper Dan was the bald headed character featured on a magnetic drawing set of the 1950s.
  • Dapper Dan is an English hair care company founded in 2011.
  • The newest Dapper Dan is a hip-hop fashion designer.
  • The Dapper Dans are barbershop quartets that perform at Disney Parks around the world.

Why men put that goop on their hair

“Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya. Use more only if you dare. Brylcreem, the gals’ll all pursue ya, They love to run their fingers through your hair.” Click here to see for yourself.


The two most impressive pompadours in the rock and roll world were worn by James Brown and Little Richard, who oiled and stacked their hair to improbable heights in a style called by some a process and others, a conk.

Silvio Dante had an impressive pompadour that was removable.

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