In doing historical research for my upcoming novel, By Steams of Water (August 1, 2013), I took a look at hair care for women in the 1870's and 80's. Some of what I found has some application for us today, I think. We might not care for our locks in the same way, but we still want to care for our "crowning glory".
Here, in no particular order, are some random facts and observations:
1) In the 1870's and 80's, women often had their hair cut 1/4 inch per month either at the new moon or the full moon. They believed that this would prevent split ends and keep the hair strong. Most people had large families back in the day. To keep the hair properly trimmed was either a huge task undertaken at home or it meant a big trip to the barber's. It was convenient to do everyone's hair all at once, and the moon provided a marker of when that should be done. Today, many of us still believe that a trim once a month (or, at the outside, six weeks) will prevent split ends, though we don't usually tie this down to the waxing and waning of the moon. I suppose that watching the moon might be one way of keeping track of when your hair was last trimmed and when it might need a touch up. Today, however, it's easier to mark the calendar on your smart phone.
2) The word shampoo comes from a Hindu word, champo. Originally, it referred to ingredients used in a scalp massage. In the middle 1800's, an Anglicized form of this was introduced at Brighton, England, where it became a sort of spa treatment.
3) Some soaps that we find on the shelves today were used to wash hair in Edwardian times: Pears, Yardley, Octagon, and Castille are just a few. I don't know if the formulation for these soaps is the same today as it was then, but the companies that produce them are still around. Even my mother, who came of age in the 30's, occasionally used some of these things on her hair. I came along during the era when we all started washing our hair everyday and using whatever shampoo might be trendy. I remember being puzzled that a cartoon character, the ever-glamorous Brenda Starr, was known for washing her hair in Pear's soap, and I asked my mother why she didn't use shampoo. In the early days of products marked as "shampoo", the formulations were similar to soap. Washing with soap can be done today and might even have some advantages. It requires using a rinse to remove a film, though. Old time remedies for combating dullness left by soaps and shampoos are vinegar water rinses for brunettes and redheads and lemon juice rinses for blondes. Some use these today once in a while to clarify the hair or, in other words, to remove product residue.
4) Women in the Victorian era and the Edwardian era did not wash their hair nearly as often as we do. For one thing, they had a lot more hair to wash, and they had to set aside special time for washing and drying their long locks. In some decades, women had hair reaching as long as they could grow it. Also, they wore their hair up, and hair with some natural oils in it was easier to dress. (Even today, many think that it's easier to style hair that is at least one day past washing than it is with freshly washed hair.) Rather than washing often, they kept their hair clean through brushings and combings, which distributed the oils and removed dust and the like. They would also often cover their hair while cleaning to prevent dust from settling into it. As you can imagine, since the brush was a cleaning tool, they put a lot of emphasis on keeping their brushes and combs clean. For those of us whose hair is shoulder length or shorter and for those of us who wash our hair frequently, nightly brushings of one hundred strokes or so are not necessary. We still do well, however, to keep our brushes and other hair tools, as well as makeup tools, clean and sanitary.
When women began to favor shorter hair, they moved to a once a week appointment at a salon. For those with means, this was a bridge between the era when women had maids to do their hair and the time frame when women began to do most of their hair care themselves.
While we wouldn't want to go back to washing our hair as infrequently as our great-great grandmothers did, some are re-thinking the modern idea that we should wash our hair every day or every other day. Such frequent washings can be drying, particularly as we age. It strips away natural oils, which must be replaced by conditioners. Also, there are some health risks that might be associated with shampoos. Some are trying to extend the time between washings and to find alternatives to modern shampoos for their hair. I haven't gotten that industrious, but do understand why people are taking this route. Google "no poo", and you'll find lots of recipes for stretching out washings and doing without commercial shampoos.
5) In the 1870's, businesses began to market specific hair care products to African Americans. Prior to that, African Americans had generally devised their own ways of cleaning and dressing hair. After emancipation, many suffered scalp disease and hair loss from infrequent washings and lack of access to the things that make for good hygiene. In the Edwardian era, Madam C. J. Walker developed shampoos to combat this problem and founded her own hair products company. She was one of the first African American businesswomen, and she helped other African American women to prosper in business, as well.
6) Do you love all of those Victorian and Edwardian updos but fear you don't have enough hair to achieve those styles. Never fear! The women of yesteryear, even with their long, long locks, often didn't have enough volume to achieve those looks either. Hair pieces, rats stuffed with one's own fallen hairs, false fringes, and other devices were often used to achieve those looks.
7) Have you ever burned yourself with a curling iron? Be thankful that you likely didn't singe your hair in a noticeable way. In the Victorian era, it wasn't uncommon for women to scorch their hair, especially when it came to bangs and other tendrils around the face. Singed pieces around the face were hard to hide.
8) Back in the day, seven sisters whose last name was Sutherland toured as an act. The first part of their performance was singing. That's not why people came to see them, however. They were waiting for the moment when the sisters let down their hair Rapunzel style, for they were known as having the longest hair in the world. Can you imagine such a thing drawing audiences today?