A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hair Care

Hall's Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer, 19th Century Advertisement.

Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer, 19th Century Advertisement.

Since biblical times, a woman’s hair has been known as her crowning glory.  This was never more true than in the Victorian era – a span of years during which thick, glossy hair was one of the primary measures of a lady’s beauty.  But how did our 19th century female forebears maintain long, luxurious hair without the aid of special shampoos, crème rinses, and styling treatments?  And how did they deal with hair-related complaints such as an oily scalp, dry, brittle tresses, or premature greyness?

To start with, shampoo as we know it today did not exist during the 19th century.  In fact, the word shampoo meant something quite different to the Victorians.  Derived from the Hindi word champo, it was an Indian technique of pressing or massaging the scalp and other parts of the body.  In her 1840 book titled Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, author Mrs. Walker describes the process of shampooing:

Ayer's Hair Vigor, 19th Century Advertisement.

Ayer’s Hair Vigor,
19th Century Advertisement.

“To give readers an idea of the practice of shampooing as it exists in many nations, I shall repeat here what Anquetil says concerning shampooing among the Indians.  One of the servants of the bath stretches you on a plank, and sprinkles you with warm water.  He next presses the whole body with the palms of his hands, and cracks the joints of the fingers, legs, arms, and other members.  He then turns you over on your stomach; kneels upon the loins; and taking hold of the shoulders, makes the spine crack by acting upon all the vertebrae, and strikes some sharp blows upon the most fleshy and muscular parts, &c.”

As you can see, Victorian shampooing was not the ideal method to cleanse one’s hair of everyday dirt and grime.  In order to do that, most ladies had a complete regime of haircare which encompassed everything from regimented brushing to egg washes and perfumed pomades made of bear grease.  To begin, Mrs. Walker advises on the basic tools of the trade.  Her exhaustive list of “necessary” items includes, amongst many other things, three combs made of tortoiseshell with teeth of varying widths, a “hard or penetrating brush” to clean the roots of the hair after combing, and a soft brush to smooth the hair.  Mrs. Walker writes:

“When the hair has been well cleaned with combs, it should be brushed with a brush, made of very fine hairs, or which is still better of fine rice roots.  Constant use of the brush effectually clears the head from scurf and dust.  This should be employed for about ten minutes night and morning, to preserve its bright glossy appearance.”

A Woman Seated at her Dressing Table having her Hair Brushed, 19th Century.(Image via Wellcome Library)

A Woman Seated at her Dressing Table having her Hair Brushed, 19th Century.
(Image via Wellcome Library)

Added to this twice-daily ritual of brushing and combing, Mrs. Walker states that, if needed, “ablutions with lukewarm water, or soap and water” might also be employed to keep one’s tresses in tiptop shape.  In most circumstances, this was all that was required.  However, on occasion the Victorian lady might need to give her hair a really thorough wash.  For this, Walker recommends:

“…the yolks of a couple of eggs, beat till they form a cream, to be rubbed into the hair, and then washed out with tepid water, well brushed and wiped, as bestowing the most silky and beautiful appearance.”

Although favored by many fine ladies – including Empress Elisabeth of Austria who is known to have washed her hair with a mixture of raw eggs and fine cognac – egg yolk washes were not the only option for thoroughly cleansing ones hair.  In Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton offers a recipe for “A Good Wash for the Hair” made of a combination of “one pennyworth” of borax, a half pint of olive oil, and one pint of boiling water.  While Mrs. Walker provides detailed instructions on washing long tresses with a combination of warm water and perfumed toilet soap, writing:

“A basin of warm water, rendered frothy with a little toilet soap slightly perfumed, will answer the purpose.  It is necessary to remove carefully the tresses of the hair, and with a sponge, dipped in the soapy water, to wash it thoroughly all over.  The hair being perfectly cleansed, the head should be well dried with napkins, slightly warmed in winter, and then brushed several times.”

Perfumed Glycerine Soap, 19th Century advertisement.

Perfumed Glycerine Soap, 19th Century advertisement.

Nowadays washing your hair every day or every other day is often the norm for most people.  For the Victorian lady, the frequency of a thorough wash with egg yolks or soap and water was wholly dependent on the nature of her hair.  Mrs. Walker states:

“Supple moist oily hair may be washed every eight days with lukewarm water.  Light hair, which is seldom oily, and the fineness and softness of which obviates the use of pomades, rarely requires washing.  But a little honey dissolved in a very small quantity of spirit, scented with rosemary, &c. is an excellent substitute.”

For oily hair, there were alternatives to washing.  Before retiring to bed in the evening, a lady might powder her hair.  Mrs. Walker advises using a Swansdown puff to apply “Florence iris or orris root” or extremely fine carnation powder to the scalp and tresses.  The powder would act as an absorbent during the night and, in the morning, could be brushed out.

A Hairdresser Accidentally Severing a Woman's Locks with his Curling Tongs, 19th century. (Image via Wellcome Library)

A Hairdresser Accidentally Severing a Woman’s Locks with his Curling Tongs, 19th century.
(Image via Wellcome Library)

In her book Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, author Madeleine Marsh explains that “luxuriant locks were integral to feminine charm and lack of make-up was compensated for by extravagant hair care.”  Based on the above descriptions of hair brushing and washing, it may seem as though there was nothing overly extravagant about haircare in the Victorian era.  However, crimping, curling, elaborate pinning, tight plaiting, and other fashionable 19th century means of styling one’s hair did take a toll.  As a result, ladies were compelled to turn to all sorts of potions and pomades to restore luster to their hair.

One of the most popular treatments of the era was Rowland’s Macassar Oil.  Advertised as a “delightfully fragrant and transparent preparation for the hair” and as an “invigorator and beautifier beyond all precedent,” Macassar oil was applied to the tresses by both men and women to restore gloss and sheen.  As with any preparation of this sort, it did have some visible effect, but the primary result of using Macassar oil was not the one the inventors intended.  As Marsh points out:

“What it certainly did leave was greasy marks on the furniture – hence the introduction of the antimacassar (a little cloth designed to protect the chair back).”

Rowlands Macassar Oil Advertisement, 1862.

Rowlands Macassar Oil Advertisement, 1862.

Rowland’s Macassar Oil was not the only 19th century hair treatment.  There was Ayer’s Hair Vigor, Edwards’ Harlene for the Hair, and Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer to name a few.  These products promised everything, up to and including curing baldness and “restoring grey hair to its original color.”  Mrs. Walker was skeptical of these claims, wisely advising her readers:

“The hair sometimes turns partially grey before that age at which such a change may naturally be expected.  This is a calamity particularly disagreeable to females, because it makes them appear older than they really are; but no one, save quacks, impostors and charlatans, professes to have found any means of obviating it.”

This did not mean that Victorian ladies had no way of masking greyness.  There were hair dyes even then, though, as Marsh explains, dying one’s hair was still not considered quite proper or entirely safe.

Circassian Hair Dye Advertisement, 1843.

Circassian Hair Dye Advertisement, 1843.

As an aid to styling, pomade was often used.  Mrs. Walker recommends it for smoothing down plaits and for imparting a shine to both real hair and to the fake “tufts” which were frequently incorporated into Victorian hairstyles to add fullness.  Pomade was also used as a treatment to alleviate the extreme dryness which resulted from curling and crimping hair with hot irons.

A variety of pomade made with perfumed bear grease was popular until the final quarter of the century when, as Marsh reports, “vegetal lotions – made from coconut, palm and olive oils – had largely taken over.”  Until that time, there were a few other ways of making pomade that, thankfully, did not require the boiled fat of a Russian brown bear.  Isabella Beeton provides several recipes for pomade in her book of household management, including the following:

Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861.

Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

With hair washed, brushed, oiled, and pomaded, all that was left was to twist, curl, plait, and pin the hair into one of the many intricate Victorian hairstyles of the day.  More on those fashionable coiffures in an upcoming post.  Until then, I hope the above has given you some insight into all that went in to brushing, washing, and maintaining the luster of 19th century tresses.

**Author’s Note: This article was originally published on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog in December.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Beeton, Isabella. Ed. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.  London: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1861.

Marsh, Madeleine.  Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day.  Barnsley: Remember When, 2009.

Walkers, Mrs. A.  Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress.  New York: Scofield and Voorhies, 1840.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s quarterly newsletter THE PENNY NOT SO DREADFUL.

You can also connect with Mimi on Facebook and Twitter.

30 thoughts on “A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hair Care

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    My great grandmother swore by nourishing her hair every three months [in addition to normal washing] with egg yolks [the whites preserved to make lemon meringue pie] rinsed once in warm beer and once in lukewarm water. She had, by all accounts, luxuriant red hair into her forties when it began to fade a little.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I sometimes wonder if all the chemicals in modern shampoo aren’t harming our hair over time. Women from generations ago seemed to have such enviable hair. They must have been doing something right!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I have made shampoo with pure castile soap and herbal ingredients appropriate to the various hair types of the household, and it worked pretty well. But I don’t have time nowadays, so I fall back on the products of the local supermarket where to a certain point the cheaper the product, the less it’s been messed with chemically.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Iva P. says:

    With the prescribed 100 brush stokes a day to keep away dirt and dust, it was normal to wash hair every six weeks even in the early 20th century when the hair was still kept long. Still better than during the Elizabethan times when hair washing was considered a foolish health risk. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. angelarigley says:

    Thanks for a very interesting article. I can’t use modern shampoos as I’m intolerant to sodium laureth sulphate, so I just use olive soap; no chemicals whatsoever, and my hair is as glossy as when I was young, albeit white,but not from the soap. lol

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Noirfifre says:

    Now many hairperts are recommending going back to oils to nourish the hair and natural products such as eggs. Some shampoos do strip the hair of its natural oils. Another interesting point is the frequency of washing from every week to months as oppose to every day regime of today. I have read in several articles that washing hair every day/frequently with products dry the hair. Another interesting post Mimi. P.S the hairdresser with the tongs in the photo look like he will lose his life for that hair accident.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. fluff35 says:

    I commented on Facebook but there seems more discussion here – I found this really interesting as I’ve a bit of an interest in Victorian hair care after doing a blog post on my great grandmother’s hair loss remedy, https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2057 – any thoughts from you would be welcomed, as someone who knows a lot more about this period than I do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks for the link, Helen. I haven’t specifically researched hair loss remedies in the 19th century. However, to my knowledge, there weren’t any – at least any legitimate ones! There were tons of patent medicines though, promising all sorts of things. I wish I could tell you more, but without researching it, I simply don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Maria says:

    Very interesting article. 🙂 I’m a longhair and many of these things (oils in particular) are very much used by people in the longhair community and I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t swear by it.

    I’ve often thought about trying out some of the different ways to wash and clean the hair instead of using modern shampoo and conditioner. I do use something without SLS though. (SLS was terribly drying and I didn’t realise how much until I stopped using shampoo with it in it).

    Anyway, I can see we modern longhairs are more or less following the Victorian routine with a few differences. And yes, washing less is a very big deal as washing and (towel) drying does a number on the hair.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Maria 🙂 And you’re right, a lot of these methods are still used today – and quite effectively, too. I think the hardest thing for modern ladies–as far as washing less and using oils, etc–is the transition period in the beginning weeks before hair normalizes. It’s worth sticking out, though, especially if you have long hair!

      Like

Comments are closed.