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Since modern shampoo as we know it today didn’t come into existence until the 20th century, what did people do to wash their hair before then? What did they use back in the 19th century? Or even earlier than that?
Some people might answer that question by saying that people who lived back in “the olden days” had really bad hygiene and hardly ever even washed their hair.
This was probably true for some people back in the 19th century. I doubt, for example, that washing hair would have been very high on the priority list for miners during the Gold Rush era or for cowboys riding for weeks on the dusty plains.
The majority of people living during the Victorian era, though, made an effort to keep their bodies, including their heads, clean and fresh. Judging by the amount of hair care tips mentioned in various 19th century lady’s magazines and books about etiquette and health, the average Victorian woman cared very much about having healthy, beautiful hair.
Cleanliness is a Matter of Perception
By modern standards, our ancestors living during the 19th century and earlier might seem to have had poor standards of cleanliness because they didn’t take a shower and wash their hair every single day the way that most people do now.
There were a couple of different reasons for this. One reason was that washing their hair every day would have been very inconvenient and impractical, especially for women with waist-length hair. The process of heating up water, washing the hair, and then letting it dry without the aid of any modern blow-dryers would have been too time-consuming for the majority of the working- class and middle-class women, not to mention the fact that it probably would have been highly unpleasant in the cold of winter.
Even the wealthiest of women didn’t wash their hair every day, though. And one of the main reasons is that they simply didn’t need to. Without the harsh detergents in modern shampoos that strip the natural oils from the scalp, the hair of women in the Victorian era could go much longer between washings without getting too oily.
How frequently a woman washed her hair would have depended on social status – a socialite attending galas and fancy dinners would have put more of a priority on washing her hair than a homesteader struggling to survive on the prairie – and on the type of her hair, whether it was thick or thin, oily or dry, etc.
One book of the period, Hints on Health published in 1852, says that washing “once a week could scarcely be deemed too troublesome” (pg. 121).
Once a week might seem disgusting to modern shampooers who are used to lathering up their hair on a daily basis, but going a week or more between washings was perfectly acceptable back in the time before the creation of modern shampoo.
Victorian Shampoo Alternatives
I’ve listed several of the different natural hair-washing methods that I’ve come across while reading through my collection of 19th century books and magazines.
While some of these methods might work fine by themselves, most of them work best when combined with one another, or at least that’s what my experience has been.
The effectiveness of any of the methods also depends a lot on hair type and on water quality. Unlike modern shampoos which are formulated to work for specific hair types and for both hard and soft water, natural hair washes can take some tinkering to get just right for your own particular hair type and water quality.
~ “Many heads of hair require nothing more in the way of wash than soap and water” – pg. 317, Decorum (published 1879).
~ “To cleanse the hair, there is nothing better than soap and water . . . the soap, of course, should be mild, and well and plentifully rubbed in, and afterwards thoroughly removed with an abundance of water” – pg. 121, Hints on Health (published 1852).
From what I’ve read, soap seems to have been one of the most common old-fashioned hair washes. The soap would have been a castile soap or “toilet soap” as it was often called because it was milder than the soap that would have been used for washing laundry.
Soap can be a simple, natural way to wash your hair without stripping it of its natural oils. The only trouble is that, depending on the type of water you have, you might have to try a couple different soaps to find one that will lather well and wash out completely with the water that you have.
If you have very hard water, some soaps can leave a “sticky” feeling in your hair. The water in my shower is pretty hard, so I’ve experienced this stickiness before. Not very pleasant at all. After a bit of experimenting, though, I’ve found a soap that lathers well, rinses out completely, and leaves my hair feeling clean.
This is the soap that I’ve been using for the past few months. (See update below.) This link is for a 3-pack of the “original” formula, but there are also other ones made by the same company with different scents and oils, etc. It’s supposed to be made from a recipe that’s over 100 years old, so it’s probably pretty similar to the type of soap that might have been used during the Victorian era.
Update: 2/27/21 While I had good success using this soap previously, more recently I have experienced a bit of stickiness in my hair and some residue. This could be because something with the soap itself changed, or it could be because my water changed. Either way, I can attest to the fact that trying to use soap to wash your hair can be tricky.
I’ve actually seen some Victorian books recommending soft water or collecting rain water, so that might be one way that they avoided the issue of residue left from soap. I suppose that using distilled water to wash your hair might help with the issue, but it would also be less convenient than being able to just rinse your hair in the shower.
~ “Vinegar and water form a good wash for the roots of the hair” – pg. 316, Decorum (published 1879).
Vinegar is something that most people in the “real food” world are familiar with, especially those who have ever tried the “no poo” method. I gave “no poo” a try for a little while, but it just wasn’t working for me.
With the hard water in my shower, “no poo” was too finicky to try to get just the right amounts of baking soda and apple cider vinegar, and the results weren’t consistent for me. I love using apple cider vinegar as a rinse after washing my hair with castile soap, though.
The vinegar nicely balances out the ph of my hair and leaves it feeling soft and shiny afterwards. I use about a teaspoon diluted in a cup of water, but the best ratio of vinegar to water can vary depending on the type of hair you have, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different ratios of vinegar to water.
~ “If you want to have a good head of hair, never apply to cosmetics; use nothing else to clean it but strong, cold black tea. Rub it into the roots every evening before going to bed, with a little sponge, and every morning do the same. I generally use it, and recommend it to all ladies desirous of having a full head of hair” – pg. 261, Godey’s Lady’s Book (September 1867).
Using black tea is something that would be best for those with medium to dark hair. I’ve used it on my light brown hair with no problems, but it’s possible that it might temporarily darken very light blonde hair.
For my hair, using the tea by itself wasn’t enough to fully wash my hair and make it look clean, but I will occasionally use it as a rinse or rub it into the roots of my hair like the magazine suggests if I happen to have some handy.
The tea might work better as a cleanser for some people, depending on hair type and water type. I find it really interesting, though, that books and magazines of the 19th century were recommending such simple ways to care for the hair like using just black tea. Compare that one ingredient to the huge list of unpronounceable ingredients in modern shampoos and conditioners!
~ “Any preparation of rosemary forms an agreeable and highly cleansing wash” – pg. 317, Decorum (1879).
Rosemary is a natural way to add shine to your hair without having to use silicone-based conditioners and styling products.
My favorite way to use rosemary is to make a strong cup of rosemary tea, let it steep and cool down until it’s a comfortable temperature, and then use it as a rinse for my hair after I wash it.
If I’m using apple cider vinegar to rinse my hair, and I also want to use the rosemary, I use the rosemary tea to dilute the vinegar rather than just water. As another bonus, the rosemary smells really nice and helps to balance out the acidic scent of the vinegar.
~ “The yolk of an egg beaten up in warm water is an excellent application to the scalp” – pg. 317, Decorum (1879).
~ “To cleanse long hair – beat up the yelk of an egg with a pint of soft water. Apply it warm, and afterwards wash it out with warm water” – pg.458, Godey’s Lady’s Book (printed 1869).
Egg yolks are great to use as a mask to nourish and moisturize the hair. What I usually do, when I have the time, is to mix an egg yolk with some water (or a cup of rosemary tea for an extra shine boost) and coat my hair with the mixture. Then I wrap my hair up with a towel or shower cap and let the egg yolk mask sit in my hair for 10-15 minutes, or longer if I’m not in a hurry. Then I wash my hair as usual with the hair soap. It takes a little bit longer to do, but my hair always looks and feels so much nicer afterwards that it’s worth it!
“New England rum, constantly used to wash the hair, keeps it very clean, and free from disease, and promotes its growth a great deal more than Macassar oil. Brandy is very strengthening to the roots of the hair; but it has a hot, drying tendency, which N.E. rum has not” – pg. 12 The American Frugal Housewife (published 1833).
This method is one I haven’t tried, but I’d be curious to see how it works. Again, this seems like the type of method that might work better for some hair types than others.
For someone with really dry hair, the alcohol content might be too strong and harsh of a wash. For someone whose hair tends to be on the oily side, though, this might work just fine. This method would also only have been used once a week or possibly even more infrequently since daily hair washing wasn’t done back in the 19th century like it is today, so it would probably be best suited for an occasional clarifying wash.
Even though it doesn’t really fall under the same category as a shampoo, brushing was very important back in the 19th century as a means to clean the hair and to keep it healthy.
Brushing with a natural bristle brush also helps to make the hair shiner by distributing the scalp’s natural oils down the entire length of the hair strand. To our ancestors, brushing the hair daily was considered even more important than other methods of washing and caring for the hair.
The Results Are Worth the Extra Effort
Using natural, traditional methods of caring for your hair can require a bit of tweaking to get a routine that fits right for your individual hair and water type. It also might take your hair a little while to adjust to the transition from chemical-based products to natural ones.
Once you find a method that works for your hair, though, it’s so much nicer to be able to use such simple household ingredients to care for your hair and not to worry about all of the harmful ingredients that most shampoos contain.
And, as an added bonus, it’s much cheaper too since most of the things you can use for washing your hair can already be found in your own kitchen!
If you like using natural hair care methods, you might enjoy reading The No Poo Method: Your Guide to Natural Hair Care by Ashlee Mayer. Ashlee’s book is a guide to all-natural, shampoo-free hair care with tips and recipes to help you have beautiful hair naturally.
Special discount! Readers of Our Heritage of Health can save 30% by using the coupon code “nopoo30” at checkout.
Further reading about natural hair care:
All Natural Hair Care by Reformation Acres
Natural Homemade Products for Curly Hair by The Sweet Plantain
DIY Shampoo Recipe Roundup by Life Sanity
10 Tips for Going No-Poo by It’s A Love/Love Thing
This post is linked to: Sunday School at Butter Believer, Natural Living Monday at Natural Living Mamma, Clever Chicks Blog Hop at The Chicken Chick, Party Wave Wednesday at Holistic Squid, Natural Living Link-Up at Jill’s Home Remedies, Small Footprint Friday at Small Footprint Family.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.