Human Interest

Maintaining your hair the Victorian way

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We all like to look our best; whether it’s to impress a potential partner, improve our career prospects, express ourselves, or to simply showcase our inner confidence to the world. Some of us are even prepared to sacrifice comfort for the sake of fashion (high heels, anyone?).Would you be prepared to use a lotion laced with poison as a hair treatment though? The answer is probably not.

Victorian Hair 2

Yet, according to The Lady’s Dressing Room by Baroness Staffe, (translated by Lady Colin Campbell) from 1893, such a lotion was recommended not only for washing the hair but also as a treatment when it was falling out. Old rum and a “rectified and sweet-smelling spirit” were combined with quinine and left for a total of five days before having its sediment rinsed “with about two-fifths of water” and filtered through paper. Primarily used for the treatment of Malaria in modern times, Quinine may depress the functions of all the cells in the body, especially the heart, liver, kidneys, and nervous system if used improperly. Its poisonous reaction time is immediate so, as I’m sure you’d agree, any attempt to use the above hair lotion from 1893 would be considered a bad idea.


A far less deadly shampooing mixture, also taken from The Lady’s Dressing Room, was used in England and followed this recipe:


“A quart of hot or cold water, in which 1 ounce of carbonate of soda has been dissolved and half an ounce of Pears’ soap cut into small pieces. Add to this some drops of perfumed essence and 1 ounce of spirits of wine. After washing the hair with this preparation, it should be rinsed with tepid water, and then both the head and hair should be rubbed with warm towels till they are dry.”


For those with little time to spare to make such complicated mixtures there was this alternative:


“A teacupful of salt in a quart of rain-water. This can be used after it has stood for twelve hours. To one cup of the preparation add a cup of warm rain-water. Wash the hair well with this, rinsing and rubbing it, as well as the scalp, with a towel till they are quite dry.”


You have to question how pure the rain-water would’ve been in 1893 though especially in the big towns and cities such as Liverpool and London. Smoke from coal fires, particularly in London, could be so bad they’d create smog or “pea-soupers” wherein you’d be unable to see your hand in front of your face. Mix this airborne soot with rain-water and the shampoo you’re mixing might not be so effective after all.

victorian hair 4

Yet the importance of keeping the hair and scalp clean is nonetheless a high priority for Baroness Staffe as she refers to it frequently in The Lady’s Dressing Room. According to her a fine toothcomb is “necessary to keep the hair and the scalp clean” even though it can be “fatal for the hair, especially when it is falling out.” The best way to keep the hair clean, she thinks, is to “admirably [clean it] with flour”. She writes “it, as well as the skin of the head, should be rubbed with the flour, and then carefully brushed. I think this is perhaps the best way of all. It is a pity that it is difficult to use it with dark hair, for obvious reasons.” She does recommend it for those with white hair, however.

Hints of our modern haircare may also be found within the pages of The Lady’s Dressing Room with one particular treatment being surprisingly familiar:


“The yolk of an egg is very good for cleaning the hair, and helps to make it grow. The skin of the head should be well rubbed with the yolk, and then rinsed with warm water. The white of eggs, well beaten up into a froth, is also one of the simplest and best preparations; it should be used in the same way as the yolks.”

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The use of hot curling irons is a no-no for Baroness Staffe and she recommends that “it is always well to dry the hair rapidly and thoroughly; and after drying, it should be allowed to hang loosely over the shoulders for an hour or two. The hair will get much less matted if after shaking it out it is allowed to hang loose over the shoulders while one is dressing and undressing.” Brunettes may also “stop their raven locks from falling out by the application of lemon- juice to their scalps”. I have friends who have used both the egg-yolk and lemon-juice treatments on their heads with varying degrees of success. It would therefore appear that, in some ways, Victorian haircare wasn’t as far away from our own as we may tend to assume. Thankfully though we’ve moved away from using poisonous quinine based lotions; enabling everyone to enjoy beautiful hair without risking more than their follicles.




The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Baroness Staffe, trans. Lady Colin Campbell, 1893 – Part II (cont.) from Lee Jackson’s Victorian Dictionary:


Stevens, Serita Deborah with Klarner, Anne The Howdunit Series: Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1990) p.180

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