The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Experimenting with domestic receipts: historic hair washes.

Image from ClipArtETC.
Over the years of reading historic household manuals, etiquette books, and cookbooks, I have seen many recipes and instructions for making cosmetics, personal cleansers and any number of toiletries, and while my allergy to almonds prevents me from trying many of them (since almond oil seems to have been a popular ingredient), I have recently been experimenting with some of the recipes for hair washes.  It began in the spring – I don’t remember exactly how – with me reading the recommendations posted to a discussion forum for people with long hair.  People were doing so many different things to encourage their hair to grow, to improve its texture, and it never really occurred to me that using anything other than my modern shampoo and conditioner would make a difference with my hair.  My hair is waist-length, very fine, and I don’t have much of it, but it has good color and a smooth texture, and I’ve been pretty satisfied with my regular hair-care routine, which is as minimal as I can make it!  I’m not one for serums and other products in my hair; I basically shampoo and condition 3 times a week, brush it every morning and evening, and wear it in a ponytail every day.  I own a can of hair spray, a canister of mousse and a tube of hair gel, as well as an assortment of bobby pins and hair pins, which I use when I put my hair up into a historic hair style, but that’s pretty much it.  However, the women on the hair forum were discussing the use of regular bar soap, bar shampoos, and various hair rinses instead of commercial shampoos and conditioners for cleaning their hair.  It was intriguing to think that I might be able to get out of buying huge bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and still keep my hair in good condition.

from the collection of Lissa Higgins.
The fact that I’m an historian led me to go back to the antique recipes I’d seen, try to figure out how they were intended to be used, and analyze exactly what they were supposed to do for the hair.  Many of them are combinations of herbal infusions, alcohol (often brandy), acid (vinegar or lemon juice) and oil (often almond or rose).  The user was instructed to take a bit of sponge and tie it to a smooth stick, wet the sponge with the hair wash, and use it to scrub the hair and scalp every day.  Sometimes the hair wash was supposed to be rinsed out with plain water or some other substance like stale beer, but the washing was always supposed to be followed by the application of some heavy pomade or moisturizer to the hair.  I wanted to get out of putting heavy products on my scalp, which seems to break out easily, and the posts on the hair forum caught my eye.  Many people said that they washed their hair with plain Ivory soap, and rinsed it out with a weak acidic solution, like lemon water, and some people were swearing by a rinse of diluted apple cider vinegar, telling how it improved their scalp health and the cleanliness of their hair, and how they didn’t need to use conditioner at all any more.  I decided to experiment with not using my regular shampoo and conditioner, washing my hair with plain soap or bar shampoo, and try the vinegar or lemon juice rinse, combined with a few ingredients from the antique hair wash recipes, to see how my hair would react.

Here’s the technique I’ve been using all summer: wet the hair under the shower as usual, rub the bar of soap all over my head, really scrub my hair and scalp with my fingertips to get the lather all over, then rinse with plain water, tip my head back and pour the vinegar rinse over my hair. The rinse immediately smooths out the texture of my hair, making it as silky as if I had just put heavy conditioner in it!  I squeeze it through my hair to the tips, making sure to rub it all over my scalp, then rinse it off under the shower.

Ivory Soap in reproduction ca. 1875 wrapper.
Photo: Elizabeth Urbach
Washing with good old Ivory soap made my hair “squeaky clean” but tangly, and slightly sticky when dry; it also seemed to need washing again sooner than usual.  I thought that the stickiness could be soap scum left behind; vinegar water is great for cleaning soap scum off of the shower walls, so why not use it to get it off of my hair?  It turns out, that’s part of the reason behind the popularity of apple cider vinegar hair rinses; they get the soap scum off, plus they also apparently balance the pH of the hair, making the surface of each hair lie down smoothly, eliminating both the stickiness and tangly texture.  Pure apple cider vinegar was too strong, and made my scalp sting; plus, it left its odor on my hair, making my hair smell a little like salad dressing even after it dried.  I ended up diluting it more and more with water until I reached a hair rinse of ¼ cup vinegar with about 2 cups of plain water; I also added about 5 or 6 drops of essential oil (I like lavender, lemon, and/or orange) to help camouflage any remaining vinegar odor.

I tried using some of the other ingredients found in antique hair wash recipes, instead of the vinegar, to see what they would do to my hair.  I started with diluted rose water (half rose water and half plain water), which worked wonderfully, and didn’t need to be rinsed out, like the vinegar did.  My hair was smooth, non-tangly, and smelled nicely of roses.  Then I ran out of rose water, and reached for some alcohol, in the form of a few tablespoons of alcohol-based cologne.  That added nothing but scent to the hair rinse, and left the soap scum all over my hair.

Sage in bossom.  Photo: Elizabeth Urbach.
I also tried herbal infusions instead of plain water; I chose sage, because I saw it mentioned as being good for dark hair, and because I have 2 huge sage bushes in the garden.  I picked all the leaves off a 5-inch sprig of fresh sage, put them into a pint jam jar, and filled the jar with boiling water.  Once cooled, I strained the infusion, and added it to the apple cider vinegar.  It worked nicely – although I didn’t notice any difference between the sage infusion + apple cider vinegar and the vinegar + plain water solution in the condition of my hair.  It did cover up the scent of the vinegar in my hair, however, and I probably could have left the essential oils out of the rinse, but the main thing is that the rinse works!  My hair goes from being “squeaky clean” and tangly, to smooth enough to brush while wet, immediately upon pouring the vinegar rinse over it, and is as smooth as it used to be when I used to use conditioner on it, even when dry.  I haven't noticed any extra split ends or other symptoms of dry hair and scalp.

Would bar shampoo work better than good old Ivory soap?  Many posters to the forum were recommending bar shampoos made by a small list of online companies, so I looked up the websites and found one company that sold samples for $2 each; then I ordered some samples and tried them with and without the hair wash.  The bar shampoos that I sampled are used the same way as the bar of Ivory, although they don’t leave much, if any, soap residue on my hair, so I can even go without both conditioner and the vinegar rinse and still get non-sticky, non-tangly clean hair.  They melted fairly quickly if any water was left in their soap dish, however.  Their main benefit, to me, is in their convenience for traveling, because they’re not a liquid that needs to be sealed in a small bottle.  I did not, however, find them to be that much of an improvement on regular liquid shampoo, except that I could skip using conditioner after the bar shampoo I tried, whereas I’m not sure I could do that with my regular liquid shampoo.  It was the vinegar rinse that made the most difference, and apple cider vinegar (and I get the cheap stuff in the salad dressing aisle, not the expensive unfiltered, live culture, organic stuff) has a permanent spot in my cleaning supply!  Once I finish my bottle of conditioner, I won’t be replacing it, and I may not replace my bottle of shampoo when I use that up, either.  There are some interesting perks to being a cash-poor domestic historian!

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)