Joanna here, thinking about intimate Regency customs.
Hair washing, y'know.
There's a widely held notion that Regency folks were not scrupulously clean in their bodily habits. For instance, I hear, “They didn’t wash their hair. Not at all.
On the other hand, Regency folk might think we smell dreadfully of chemicals,
or we have no human smell at all,
so it may be somewhat in the way we look at things.
Moving on to the matter of hair washing.
In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, except for a decade or two after 1790, about all women wore their hair long. Those with time and inclination curled, crimped, and powdered to match their highly decorated clothing as they went about town. The great fashionables showed up at grand balls or receptions in confections that towered a foot or more in the air, festooned with fruit, flowers, feathers and jewels.
Those grand hairdos weren’t wigs. They were created from their own long hair, brushed out, piled up high over rolls of wool, and held in place with hair pins, powder and pomatum.
The ordinary housewife kept her hair covered all day by cap or bonnet. There was less primping involved and her hair was less apt to pick up the smell of cooking and the smoke of the city. But she had long hair too. Hair never cut. Hair she could sit on when it was released from its braids.
So how did they keep it all clean?
And did they
keep it clean?
They didn’t do what we’d do. They didn’t grab up a bottle of shampoo from the shelf in the shower and rub a squirt or two into a dripping and fairly short mane. Shampoo doesn’t make an appearance till mid Nineteenth Century. Neither do routine domestic showers.
Howsabout this . . . Did they kneel by the hearth, let their sister pour warm water over their head into a big flat basin, scoop up soft soap to make a lather, (or rub a bar of lovely scented soap between their hands,) and wash? Did they comb their hair out by the fire for an hour or two? If it was June, did they take their damp-toweled hair outdoors and dry it in the sun and fresh air?
That’s a good solid maybe for me. But it’s also not a twice-a-week thing.
Because it takes a goodly while to sit and dry long wet hair, so you’d need leisure and not everyone has that even today.
Maybe especially today.
And you’d need fine, sweet, high-quality soap, not lye laundry soap. Before Pear’s Soap in 1807 that might be expensive.
So washing hair in soap and water might have been a bit of a privilege in the Regency.
So what did women do if not soap and water with its long drying time?
Well. For one thing they combed and brushed meticulously every night, cleaning the brush again and again as they went. I’m pretty sure the elaborate French hairstyles were taken down and brushed out by the blinky maid when Madame came home at the crack of dawn.
But women would also have “dry shampooed” their hair. They rubbed in a moist compound, called a pomatum, and then removed it with some fluid or let it dry and brushed or rubbed it away, taking with it dust, flaking skin, and excess oil.
The word pomatum comes from ‘apple’, one of the possible ingredients. It's a generalized term. There were pomatums to fight wrinkles, heal pimples, soothe skin, cure baldness, and so on. The ones for cleaning hair were often made from a high quality fat, fragrance, and a powder or finely-ground solid such as orris root, ground animal bones, or apples. Or, as in the recipe below, eggs.
Beat up the whites of six eggs into a froth, and with that anoint the head close to the roots of the hair. Leave it to dry on; then wash the head and hair thorou ghly with a mixture of rum and rose-water in equal quantities.
The Mirror of the Graces, By a Lady of Distinction
When I was a child we used to rinse our hair after a shampoo with vinegar, especially if we'd lathered up with soap. I still throw rosemary or lavender sprigs into the water for a bath sometimes.
Do we need quite so many polysyllabic chemicals in our bath?
Some folks say we don't need to "shampoo" so often. Or at all.
What are your thoughts?