Monday, December 14, 2015

A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Hair Care

By Mimi Matthews

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 Advert
“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 hair care which encompassed everything from regimented brushing to egg washes and perfumed pomades.  To begin, Mrs. Walker advises on the basic tools needed to maintain a lady’s tresses.  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)

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 brandy – egg yolk washes were not the only option for thoroughly cleansing one’s 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.

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 frequent washing.  Before retiring to bed in the evening, a Victorian 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 absorb the oil 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)

In her book Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, author Madeleine Marsh states 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 used by both men and women to restore gloss and sheen to their tresses.  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.

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.  Addressing herself to the subject of premature greyness, she wisely advises 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.

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 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.

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 washing, brushing, and maintaining the luster of 19th century tresses.

©2015 Mimi Matthews

Works Referenced or Cited in this Article
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.

Author Biography

Mimi Matthews is an author of contemporary and historical romance.  She is a member of Romance Writers of America (PRO), The Beau Monde, and Savvy Authors, and is currently represented by Serendipity Literary Agency in New York.  In her other life, she is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.  She resides in Northern California with her family – which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.


  1. Love this! And really, we go to just as much trouble, with our dyes, extensions, oils, curlers etc.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Carol :) And you're exactly right - though, at least in 2015 we no longer need the perfumed bear grease!

  2. Excellent blog post about women's hair care in the 19th century. Doesn't it just make you want to go out and buy up all the bottles of shampoo and conditioner you can find?

    I got a sense of appreciation for modern hair care when I watched the PBS series 1900 House and saw what the women in the family had to go through with their hair. I think I remember that the one modern thing that they couldn't resist buying when they went to the store was shampoo and conditioner.


    1. More than shampoo, it makes me so thankful for running, warm water. It is hard to imagine washing or spot-cleaning long hair in the mid-19th century using only a basin!

    2. True, Mimi, very true. Let us not forget the hot running water - another thing we take for granted these days (until we have none!)


  3. The Nerdy history girls did a post about Georgian hair care and the living history lady reckoned it kept her hair in better condition and was less hassle using pomatum... for my own part I do use a Georgian solution, I sleep with a mobcap and confine my hair within it. And it makes my long, fine, flyaway hair much, much easier to deal with!

    1. I've read so many articles over the years of people who tried a "no shampoo" method similar to 18th & 19th century ladies. Apparently, if you can manage not to wash your hair for about a month everything regulates and it looks better than ever. Though until your hair adjusts, I think it looks pretty awful for a while...

  4. My hair looks awful all winter anyway it hates the cold....

  5. oh boy yes, having survived in the cottage with only a pump I don't want to do so...

  6. This was such a fascinating post! Since I write about the Victorian era, I've bookmarked it for the future. Thanks for such great information.

    1. You're very welcome, Elizabeth. I'm so glad that you found it useful!

    2. Me too, Elizabeth. I also write historical fiction set in the Victorian era, so this is bookmarked for me.