5 Easy Tips for Better Hair (From the Early 1900s)
Pour cyanide on your scalp—and other tried-and-true pointers from the turn of the last century.
Have you ever looked at old-fashioned hairbrushes, with their flat soft bristles, and wondered how they could possibly be used to style hair? Whereas modern hair brushes can grab hair, de-tangle it, fluff it up, and sweep it into any style, the brushes of our grandmothers look as if they were intended for sensual massage, not hair care. The answer to the hairbrush puzzle lies in the shower. Or rather, the lack of shower.
For most of us, three days without a shower leaves our hair lank, greasy, and impossible to work with. But if your hair was 2 feet long and rolled up in a bun all day, that may not be the case. So it was throughout history, clear up to the 1920s. Of course, these women knew their hair was gathering oil and dirt every day. That (and that alone) was what a brush was for.
Says Helen Follett Jameson, who wrote The Woman Beautiful in 1901:
A brush should never be touched to the hair with other than a gentle, caressing motion; its first office is that of a polisher, to spread the natural oil exuding from the scalp over the hair, and give it a satiny gloss; and, secondarily, as a cleaner, to wipe off the surface soil, that is, the dust and dirt manifold of the polluted atmosphere in which it is the fate of a large part of mankind to pass their lives. The brush cannot penetrate to the scalp, through a heavy mass of hair, to remove any accumulation of dirt and dandruff there without carrying away with it very much of the crop of hair also; while, at the same time, if stiff enough to perform this office, it impairs the delicacy and integrity of the epidermis. [The Woman Beautiful]
Brushes that can penetrate the hair to the scalp will make you bald and pervert your skin's integrity. So if you insist on getting rid of the dirt and dandruff accumulated after days — or weeks — of satiny gloss, you're going to have to wash your hair.
How often must a lady wash her hair to maintain its cleanliness? At least eight times a year, and no buts about it!
According to Annette Kellerman who wrote 1918's Physical Beauty, How to Keep It:
The frequency of the shampoo is a matter which, to a certain extent, you must decide for yourself. Every three weeks I should say was about right on the average, although many women do not require a shampoo oftener than every four or even six weeks. [Physical Beauty, How to Keep It]
In those days you actually did have to rinse and repeat, for you had a month's worth of accumulated dandruff, oil, coal smoke, and road dust to wash from your scalp. As for what to use as a shampoo, Jameson has science for an answer:
There is no better shampoo for the hair than an egg, well-beaten with about an ounce of water, and rubbed thoroughly into the scalp. It is not merely a detergent, cleansing the scalp and hair of the dirt, but is tonic in its effect and strengthens the scalp. The yolk contains natural food for the hair, iron and sulphur; while the white, being a mild alkali, finds its congenial mate in the oil from the sebaceous glands, and they mingle in a saponaceous lather. [The Woman Beautiful]
But if you were not open to allowing the conjugal relations of egg white and sebaceous glands, Jameson offers a shampoo recipe, which sounds vaguely explosive:
New England rum 1 pint
Glycerine 2 ounces
Carbonate of potash 1 ounce
Borax 1 ounce
Carbonate of ammonia 1 ounce [The Woman Beautiful]
Not being in a hurry to shampoo is beginning to make more sense.
3. Unwanted hair
Beauty's Aids, written in 1901 by the anonymous "Countess C__," has much to teach on the subject on unwanted hair. Or, as the better classes refer to it, hirsuteness:
Hirsuteness is the name by which the learned characterise an excessive development of the hairy system.... Of course an exaggerated crop of hair all over the cheeks and chin and nose gives to the face a villainously masculine appearance, and is a serious drawback to feminine beauty, but if only a light down shades the upper lip, preserve it. It gives a piquancy to the face, and is often an added charm. [Beauty's Aids]
Still, if you don't like being piquant and want to tamper with your hirsuteness, the countess lays out your options:
Three ways exist by which to disembarrass yourself of this deformity — depilation and electricity. [Beauty's Aids]
The countess only lists two ways there, but hush, you. The countess doesn't have time for your nitpicking, which, by the way, is unnecessary if you properly egg your hair every six weeks. The countess warns that depilation is tedious and painful, as each hair must be pulled from the root by "small nippers of steel," and will grow back again. You can create a cream, but it will give you chemical burns. The only foolproof way to get rid of your villainously masculine appearance is by the new and exciting science of electrolysis. Electrolysis and cocaine. Lots of cocaine.
The countess writes:
This process, invented rather recently, consists in annihilation of hair by means of electricity. Into the hairy follicle a fine needle is introduced, threaded at the end with an electric spark. When the needle touches the hair of the matrice, it causes a current to pass which destroys it for ever. This operation, in no way painful to the face, is hardly painful to the chest either, and, if necessary, one can escape all pain by using cocaine. [Beauty's Aids]
You can escape a lot of things by using cocaine.
4. Hair dye
The good Countess C__ cannot wholly support the use of hair dye. Such products contain "corrosive materials." But if you must dye (and really you must, as grey hairs advertise your fallow womb and joyless life to the entire world), she recommends avoiding the use of lead. That's good. Instead she offers this recipe:
To obtain a more pronounced black, use a mixture of celeste (ammoniated solution of sulphate of copper) water with a solution of yellow cyanide. (Take great care in using this preparation; the cyanide is a terrible poison.) [Beauty's Aids]
Let it not be said the countess did not warn you. Take great care with the cyanide as you pour it on your head. It is a terrible poison.
5. General cautions
There is a wealth of information about the importance of your hair in this next paragraph, given to us by my favorite eugenicist/advice writer of the 20th century, B.G. Jefferis, in his extremely popular Searchlights on Health series:
Cautions. — It is ascertained that a full head of hair, beard, and whiskers, are a prevention against colds and consumptions. Occasionally, however, it is found necessary to remove the hair from the head, in cases of fever or disease, to stay the inflammatory symptoms, and to relieve the brain. The head should invariably be kept cool. Close night-caps are unhealthy, and smoking-caps and coverings for the head within doors are alike detrimental to the free growth of the hair, weakening it, and causing it to fall out. [Searchlights on Health]
In sum, your beard, hair, and whiskers keep the germs out. That's just science. But sometimes you may need to shave your head to relieve your brain in times of sickness. Also, don't wear hats inside. It obstructs your hair's free-range living, weakens its virility, and makes you bald. Again, that's just science.