History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 July 2010

The Lady's Stratagem: Washing the Hair

One of my latest acquisitions is The Lady’s Stratagem: A Repository of 1820s Directions for the Toilet, Mantua-Making, Stay-Making, Millinery & Etiquette. It’s a wonderful book that reprints sections of antique guides on all of the above topics. One of my favorite sections is about personal hygiene. Everything from caring for your teeth to recipes for makeup to directions for bathing (a subject upon which period authorities seem to have been strongly divided, which might explain why so many of us are confused).

A wonderful example of this schism of opinion can be found in the sections featuring arguments for and against washing your hair. The Toilette of Health, Beauty and Fashion is decidedly against the practice, claiming that washing your hair frequently results in “head-ache, ear-ache, tooth-ache, and complaints of the eyes” and ends its commentary with the precept: “Wash the hands often, the feet seldom, and the head never.” The Duties of a Lady’s Maid on the other hand actively promotes the washing of the hair, and says quite saucily: “Some persons have a strong prejudice against washing the hair . . . were this prejudice confined to the ignorant and illiterate, I might pass it over without notice; but as it is put forth in books, and under authority of professional men, it requires to be exposed and refuted . . .” it goes on to state that frequent washing of the head with tepid water prevents the exact same ills that the other source claims results from the practice.

What did a lady do if she did not wash her hair? There seems to be quite a lot of combing of the hair with ivory combs to remove oil and “scurf” (dandruff?) and severe admonitions against the use of a metal comb, as it breaks the hair. There are directions to wipe your hair down with dry towels, or with linen during summer to remove moisture and perspiration. And there are directions for the use of egg-yolk to de-grease the hair: “Take the yolk of a raw egg. Moisten your hand with it, pass it over your hair several times, them comb with a fine comb.” Can you imagine?

I can see a character having great fun (and trauma, a la Anne of Green Gables) if she were to get her hands on one of these books.


Blogger Jane O said...

That sounds like a fascinating book.

One of the problems for all those heroines in historicals is the length of time it takes to dry that long, thick hair. If you braid it, it may still be wet in the morning, and if you don't braid it, it will be in a horrible tangle.

Before electric hairdryers, no one washed her hair every day. Once a week was the norm. In between washings, you brushed. That's where those 100 strokes come in.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I guess that since I have long, thick, curly hair and I've always washed it at night and gone to bed with it wet, I don't really understand the need for a hair dryer or to braid it before bed. *shrug* I've never used/done either and my hair is just fine.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

My hairdresser taught me that long thick hair is braided before you go to bed. Women with really long hair who treat it this never know how long it is because they've never seen it dry and outside a braid.

I went through tons of Alfons Mucha's posters for my last Devil book. (Love his stuff!) One book had the poster side-by-side with the model's photo that he worked from. Much to my surprise, all the models had hair approximately the same length as what you see now. But everyone had incredibly wavy - not curly - hair.

The only explanation I could think of was that every girl back then either braided her hair or pinned it up in waves all her hair. Their hair was never allowed to just hang down straight, like modern girls' hair does. The results were amazing.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I would love to get that book, Kalen! Where did you find it? Dirty hair actually holds a style better (hair stylists often suggest you wash your hair the day before you're getting it done for a special event) so if hair was always worn up and/or curled I can see how you could get away with wash it a lot less. I have wavy hair that's always been relatively long, and I've always gone to bed with it wet. I often curl it the next day, but it doesn't dry tangled.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

@Tracy: Follow the link in the post (Amazon has it MUCH cheaper than anywhere else, like $40 v. $75!). It's a fantastic book and it's HUGE.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Miranda Neville said...

Haven't heard the word scurf since I was a child - before Head n Shoulders was imported from America along with the word dandruff. (Took care of both problems).

I remember trying egg as a conditioner but it was washed out - discovered it needs to be done with cold water (scrambled eggs anyone?)

Tracy is so right about styling with slightly dirty hair. Can't do a thing with it when it's newly washed.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I'm pretty sure my mother told me I shouldn't wash my hair too often for the same reasons...

Somewhere recently I came across a reference to daily hairwashing, I think in the federal era. On the other hand, if it was significant enough to mention in writing, does that mean it was unusual?--the historian's usual dilemma.

I went to a wonderful demo a few months ago by an expert on historical hair fashion who explained that the more elaborate styles did require what we'd think of as sticky, unwashed hair to work. Yuk.

12:19 PM  

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