A hair in the soup

hairinfoodUntil the 1920s the catchphrase “hair in the soup” referred to something that was a trivial problem. In other words, just remove it and keep on eating.

And then women started wearing their hair short.

Manufacturers of hairpins, barrettes, and hairnets felt desperate as sales of their products fell off drastically. But Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the new field of public relations, had an idea of how to revive business. He found safety experts who warned of the dangers of women working without hairnets and getting their hair caught in machinery. Also, under his guidance health experts emerged who recommended hairnets for waitresses to avoid contaminating food.


State legislatures and municipalities began to pass laws and ordinances requiring servers, mainly women, to wear hairnets or headbands [shown above, 1920s]. In Richmond VA the health commissioner advocated a hairnet requirement, saying he had witnessed waitresses with bobbed hair shake their heads to get hair out of their eyes, risking loose hair falling in food.

hairnets1967greensboroncIn the decades that followed consumers became hairnet watchdogs, sending off letters to newspapers asking why waitresses weren’t wearing hairnets or restraining hairbands. Newspapers took up the role of consumer protectors, asking health departments to investigate. Health departments around the country responded to complaints by making special visits to targeted restaurants.

Did the agitation about hair in restaurant food result in more sanitary conditions? Probably not, and not even when it resulted in waitresses covering or restraining their hair.

The reason was that special visits to restaurants interrupted the regular health inspection work by strapped health departments, stealing time from monitoring more serious issues.

In 1967 a Greensboro NC paper’s “Hot Line” surveyed 19 restaurants and found widespread noncompliance with state regulations calling for head coverings. In this case, however, the county health director said he felt head coverings were a minor health concern compared to issues such as improper refrigeration or spoiled food. In fact, he said, in annual restaurant inspections the absence of head coverings accounted for only a 10 point loss out of a total 1,000-point perfect score. He concluded that it was a misuse of time for his department to make special visits to check for head coverings.

Today, in fact, the federal Food and Drug Administration does not generally require restaurant wait staff to adopt hair restraints, though it does require restraints for those who prepare food. And there is the question of whether there are actually any negative health effects of swallowing a stray hair. Probably not.

hairnets1971nancyOn the other hand, there is little doubt that most Americans find it disgusting.

Usually when diners find a hair in food at a restaurant, they immediately stop eating it. Researchers have found that “contamination psychology” is deeply irrational and not influenced by logic. Experiments in which a cockroach was brought into contact with food resulted in disgust so deep that subjects could not overlook even the briefest contact. If the food was later decontaminated they still would not eat it, even if they recognized that all traces had been removed. According to Richard Beck in Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, “The rule seems to be “once in contact, always in contact.’”


A significant aspect of the disgust reaction to hair in food seems to be that it was once part of someone else’s body. (One’s own hair does not elicit the disgust response.) The reaction may be stronger if the body or behavior of the other person is viewed as socially unacceptable. In the 1920s some people disapproved of bobbed hair on women; in the 1960s there were people offended by long hair. Take the woman from Pulaski IL who wrote to a newspaper about the lack of hairnets in 1968: “When we enter a restaurant and notice a loose long-haired employe we leave. There is no law YET that we have to eat hair, nor eat with the Hippies, nor anything that resembles them.”

In the 1970s male servers were also sometimes the target of complaints if they had long hair or bushy beards.

But times change. Some restaurant patrons did not object at all to servers with long hair, especially if they were young and attractive like the “Grog Shop girls.” Grog Shops were part of the Stouffer’s company, a restaurant chain that had a history of strict policies on waitress garb, banning seamless hose and requiring waitresses to wear lace-up oxfords, girdles, and hairnets. However, when the Grog Shops opened in 1970, Stouffer’s dressed waitresses in micro-mini skirts, boots, and blouses with plunging necklines and asked them to wear their hair long and loose. I seriously doubt that health departments got a lot of complaints about the absence of hairnets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016


Filed under food, sanitation, uniforms & costumes

14 responses to “A hair in the soup

  1. Besimple

    You blog is amazing! You come up with some thought provoking topics. Everyday stuff, that I never really think about, until you bring it up. Thanks!

  2. Gary Larson suggested that even worms are revolted by stray hairs, in his book ‘There’s a hair in my dirt’ – http://amzn.to/2gffs9E

  3. Sandra Hunter

    Always relevant and help explain why servers need to cover their hair even though it is pink or purple! Thanks!

  4. Love the reference to Edward Bernays, what a devious manipulator! The podcast Stuff You Should Know on How Stuff Works had a wonderful story about his career, including his mastery of the hairnet!

  5. Marcia Biederman

    I recently saw an episode of “2 Broke Girls” that opened in a restaurant with the hair-in-food complaint. The new twist was the suggestion that the hair came from someone’s pubic area. Guess the old jokes have been done to death. My favorite restaurant joke with a customer complaint goes like this:
    Customer: Waiter, taste this soup!
    Waiter: What, is it too salty?
    Customer: Just come here and taste it.
    Waiter: Is it too cold?
    Customer: Taste it!
    (Waiter relents and approaches the table)
    Waiter: Where’s the spoon?
    Customer: (triumphantly) Ah HA!

  6. Love the article – the ladies at the Michigan Ave. Woolworth lunch counter wore them for years. And of course, Lilly Tomlin’s character on Laugh In!

  7. Has sesame seeds ( I thought) until I saw one move. But the sight of one hair — or even worse the choking sensation of having on in my mouth, is enough to send me running to the nearest bathrooms!

  8. Oh.. the places I’ve eaten … and the gnarly unintended bits that surely ended up in the meal. Just put on blinders and imagine little Jennifer swatting away flies while chowing that down on steak /horse meat (?)tartare at the food kiosk in the Bruges zoo on a 90-degree day. Devouring hot dogs at Ziggy’s “the Pump Room of Clark Street” – where the buns

  9. Barb

    At my favorite grocery there are several butchers, and each one must wear a hairnet (provided by the store) on his chin if he has a beard…even a short one. I notice that there are fewer beards behind the meat counter gradually over the 4 years this rule has been inplemented…one told me that they are not so comfortable.

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