History of Hair Care

These days women spend thousands of dollars each year on beauty products and treatments, which made us wonder: is this a reflection on our modern materialism or is our collective cultural obsession rooted deeper in our past? We know people have been using cosmetics to help them achieve the ideal standard of beauty prefered by their culture and period going back to ancient Egypt and beyond. Although the cosmetic industry has a rich and interesting history of strange and unique products, both natural and man made, this blog will concentrate on hair and its many facets.

Modern liquid shampoo, similar to what we use today, wasn’t invented until the late 1920s. The first rinse off conditioner wasn’t marketed until the 1970s.. Until that time people were only washing their hair about once a month and used castile, tar or lye-based soaps. When used too much these products would dry out and damage the hair, hence the only washing about once a month trend. In fact an article from New York in 1908 gives the following advice:

“…specialists recommend the shampooing of the hair as often as every two weeks, but from a month to six weeks should be a better interval if the hair is in fairly good condition.”

Otherwise, the hair was brushed every evening to help remove old oils and dirt and the recommended treatment for split ends was to singe and clip them. Before the 20th century people used all kinds of ingredients and concoctions for their hair. Many depended on what was available in that particular area. Some of those ingredients we still use today; such as, vinegar, mint, thyme, rosemary and nettle infused water and others that we thankfully no longer use today.

For our ancestors good hair was seen as a status symbol. The wealthy had the means to not only buy ingredients for cleaning, dyes and scented oils, but also items to make the hair look fuller, like wigs and extensions. In ancient Egypt women used various creams to moisturize their hair against the hot, dry climate. They also used henna to dye it and had various herbs they used to cure baldness. An ancient form of curling tongs have been found buried with mummies. In fact, besides hair dyes, tools for curling are some of the oldest hair care products we know of. In Assyria (roughly 1500 BCE) kings and other nobles used heated bars. Western Africans (500 BCE) curled their hair with sticks and set it with a clay. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (late 16th century), women would set their hair with lard and slept with a cage or nightcap over their head to protect it from rats. For cleaning and conditioning: In 7th century India they used coconut, almond oil, honey and ghee (a form of purified butter). In the 1300s Chinese women used the seeds from the cedrela tree (Chinese cedar) and Filipino women used aloe soaked in water. Americans (1600s) preferred oil mixed with eggs. Most of the above mentioned things seem pretty tame and might be something you wouldn’t have a problem using on your hair today. What about dead lizards? Europeans used to condition their hair with dead lizards boiled in olive oil and had a handy hair gel recipe that calls for lizard tallow mixed with swallow droppings. So next time the scent of a friend or co-workers hair product doesn’t agree with you, be glad it isn’t lizard tallow and swallow droppings.