V40: Edwardian Hair Styling Mysteries Solved, 1905 – Part 1 – Shampoo and Other Scary Things

The other day, while washing my hair, I began thinking about hairdressing habits of the past, and how we ladies today treat our hair in *such* a different way from our Edwardian counterparts.

The main comment I receive when posting about period hairstyling is that the commenter’s hair is so fine, so crawly, difficult to work with, lacking volume.  It may seem like women of the past had magically voluminous hair, but hair growing from the scalp hasn’t changed at all in the last 100 years.  It is how we care for our hair that has, though, and I’m determined to get to the root of how Edwardian women dealt with their locks.

First, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Edwardian women washed their hair infrequently (by today’s standards)
  • Edwardian women brushed their hair lots, with real boar bristle brushes
  • Edwardian women put just as much stuff in their hair then as we do today
  • Edwardian women did unto their hair things we would never dream of doing today

So where to start with solving the Edwardian hair mysteries?

…with a book called “The Manual on Barbering, Hairdressing, Manicuring, Facial Massage, Electrolysis and Chiropody” by A.B. Moler, published in 1905, and available as a free PDF download here.

And yes, that was electrolysis, 1905 style.

I can’t go through the whole book in one blog post, so for today’s first look into our shiny old class text, I will give you some of the shampoo, hair dressing, and hair tonic recipes Moler provides.

Shampoo Liquid

  • Bay Rum  – 3 quarts
  • Tr. Cantharides – 1/2 ounce
  • Carbonated Ammonia – 1/2 ounce
  • Sal Tartar – 1 ounce

Wash the hair with clean water after using

Ideal Hair Dressing

  • Lanoline – 4 ounces
  • Rosewater – 1 ounce
  • Lard, prep – 1 ounce
  • Oil rose – 10 drops

Moler Hair Tonic

  • Bay Rum – 1 quart
  • Witch Hazel – 1 quart
  • Glycerin – 4 ounces
  • Tr. Cantharides – 1 ounce
  • Ammonia – 1/2 ounce
  • Rose Water – 1 pint

What is Bay Rum?
It ain’t liquor.  Bay Rum is an aftershave, a lovely smelly underarm deoderant, and also has an astringent quality.  It smells good and it cleans the hair, much like astringent facial cleaners remove oils and dirt on your face today.

What is “Tr. Cantharides?”
This stands for “Tincture of Cantharides,” a drug made from pulverized blister beetles.  The tincture, and other distillations of cantharidin, used to be used to treat dermatological issues, but it is also a poison.  Apparently the use of this stuff, in very small doses, caused the scalp to tingle during the shampoo.  Too much of it and you’ll burn your head.

What is Carbonated Ammonia?
Carbonated Ammonia was a common household supply used in cooking, much like baking soda.  It was made by combining ammonia and carbonic acid.  Yummy.

What is Sal Tartar?
This is Sodium Tartrate, a binding agent used for things like jelly, margarine, sausage casings (source), and apparently shampoo.

What is Lanoline (or Lanolin)?
Lanolin is a waxy substance that comes out of the wool of sheep when processed.  It is, essentially, evaporated sweaty sheep dirt, but makes for a fantastic moisturizer and is still used in lotions and cremes today.
Don’t these recipes just sound so appetizing?  I know I recoiled the first time I read them, but then think about the effect these ingredients may have had on women’s hair.

Anyone fancy trying these recipes out?

Next time I’ll talk about brushing the hair (and why it’s so important), singeing (say what?), crimping, roughing, and other destructive Edwardian hair practices. ๐Ÿ™‚


  • Lauren

    February 9, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    Great article! I don't think I'm brave enough to try any of the recipes. I read an article written by the daughter of a hairdresser from the 1900's and she complained how her father would practice on her hair throughout her life to better his skill. She eventually started losing her hair around age 17 or so, because he would have her try every new tonic, fad, and style, ect. Kinda scared me with regards to making historical recipes for hair.

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 2:55 AM

      YIKES! I believe it – after reading about the effects Witchhazel and Tincture of Cantharides has on the skin, if it is used too much…

  • M'lady

    February 9, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    I suppose its the equivalent of bleaching your hair blonde regularly, and using strighteners, hairspray and other products today.
    My hair was permenantly greasy till I permed it twice in a row (no curls would stay in my hair no matter how much product is used)..now I can wash my hair a normal amount of times and its not as bad as it was for styling.
    So I can see how it would have an effect.

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 2:57 AM

      Absolutely, and Edwardian women also bleached and used heat dryers and styling irons, as well as a technique called "singeing" I'll talk about tomorrow.

  • ZipZip

    February 9, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Dear Lauren,
    What a fun topic: loving this hairdressing series! No thanks on everything but the lanolin and bay rum :}

    Very best,


  • Little Black Car

    February 9, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    Also to be noted: Extensions are nothing new. A lot of the hair we see in old formal portraits was likely fake. I've had hair down to my waist, and my hair is average thickness (density on my head, that is) and I still wouldn't have had enough hair in the right places to pull off a lot of the styles I've seen in carte de visites.

  • Elysse

    February 9, 2012 at 5:20 PM

    I'm afraid that the women of tomorrow will recoil in horror at what we put on out heads today much more than we do when reading the list of theses ingredients!!!

  • Time Traveling in Costume

    February 9, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    The description of lanolin just makes me want to go buy something with it. :O
    Also makes me wonder what's in our hair products now?

    • Elysse

      February 9, 2012 at 11:16 PM

      Buying the current available lanolin is not a good idea. It's full of chemicals and pesticides they spray on sheep to protect the wool. It's really sad that they've ruined such a great natural ingedient!

    • Anonymous

      February 10, 2012 at 3:17 AM

      I know you can get lanolin in any baby store. Breast feeding women use in on their nipples to help with moisture. I used it and it worked great. I cant imagine using it in my hair though it is fairly thick with a texture like Vaseline.

    • Dolly

      February 10, 2012 at 6:27 AM

      From my experience knitting and with fibre, lanoline is actually more like hair oil. Its in the wool and you need to boil it out to do anything with it.

  • Liz

    February 9, 2012 at 5:51 PM

    I imagine the products we use now use synthetic/non-toxic versions of these ingredients. They were used to achieve a specific goal, and the goals of hair care probably haven't changed a ton in 100 years.

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 2:59 AM

      You are absolutely right. The chemicals in our hair products today are just synthetically produced, and probably safer (in the case of cantharides), but have the same effect, and probably several improvements as well.

  • Solanah

    February 9, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Cool post! At first I was making faces at the ingredients then realized there's probably similar or worse in our shampoos and products today! I wish I didn't have dandruff, because I found that washing my hair with baking soda a few times a week kept it incredibly healthy. Never had so many compliments in my life as when I didn't shampoo!

    Anyway, always interesting to know these personal average things women did ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:00 AM

      I'm going to need to try the baking soda! I tried washing my hair with Guinness once and it just made it kindof straw-like, lol. I'm tempted to try some of the recipes I've been finding, if I can get my hands on the ingredients or equivelents.

  • textilehistorIE

    February 9, 2012 at 6:01 PM

    Loving your exploration of this book. Hmm. No, don't *think* I'll be rubbing a mix of that stuff on my head anytime soon. Thanks as well for the PDF link.

  • Katie Jo

    February 9, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    I'd make the hair dressing, substituting coconut oil or palm oil for the lard, if I could find rose oil. It sounds like it would smell lovely. I'd leave the other two alone and just use a baking soda solution and lavender or rose scented vinegar for cleaning one's hair.

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:02 AM

      Another book I've found, from 1901, recommends washing the hair with just water and alcohol, very simple. You are the second to recommend baking soda. I plan to try that out.

  • Ellen Widstrand

    February 9, 2012 at 6:18 PM

    Thank you for this, Lauren. I'm frankly looking forward to coming posts about this. My hair is – unfortunately – of that fine, soft and shiny type that's nearly impossible to work with. I hate it. I've always wondered what women did in the past to make their hair look so voluminous!

  • Stephanie Lynn

    February 9, 2012 at 7:06 PM

    Thanks for sharing. I have that super fine annoyingly slippery type hair so I'll be looking forward to future posts. lol I acctually liked it when I got my hair dyed professionally last year and it got a bit fried.

    I'm a chemist so mixing some of these up sounds really fun to me even if I don't use them (after making sure none of this stuff is toxic of course!)

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:04 AM

      Dyeing the hair, especially lightening it, adds quite a lot of body, I have also found. I wouldn't say it's "good" for hair, though, lol (listen to me, a total hair dye addict!) Edwardian women also dyed and bleached their hair – another post in this series to come ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Nuranar

    February 9, 2012 at 7:30 PM

    I'm looking forward to this series! I'm fortunate to not have fine/slippery hair – it's naturally medium/thick, medium/coarse, and naturally "fluffy" – near-perfect Edwardian hair. But most of all, I don't wash it very much. Every 5-7 days, probably mostly 6 days. I just started washing less often, and after a trial period, my scalp figured out that I wasn't drying it out with shampoo every two days. So it cut back on the oil it produced, and we're all much happier. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:05 AM

      First off, I'm extremely jealous. Debbie of "Vintage Dancer" also has perfect Edwardian hair. That's a good point about the scalp having to adjust to fewer washings. It's a hard thing to "train" to do, as a modern woman, though, for sure.

  • Cassidy

    February 9, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    I can't even imagine putting lanolin in my hair. My mom's always used Bag Balm for her hands … that stuff's thick and sticky.

  • ReadyThreadSew

    February 9, 2012 at 10:34 PM

    There was a TV series a few years ago where a family lived as they would have in Victorian times and at the end of the series they had to admit when they had cheated and used something modern. The women in the family admitted that they couldn't stand how dirty their hair got after using Victorian recipes for shampoo so they bought a bottle of modern shampoo. I've just done a quick google and the series was called "The 1900 House" and appears to be available on Youtube.

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:06 AM

      I remember watching 1900 House when it aired. I need to watch it again, certainly. I'm glad it's on YouTube. Yes, that greasy hair feeling can be nasty, but that's where brushing comes in…more on that in tomorrow's post

    • M'lady

      February 10, 2012 at 10:16 AM

      I've always been told that if your hair is greasy and you can't get to wash it to put talcum powder in your hair, leave for minute or two the brush out. I've tried it before and it works better than 'dry shampoo'.

  • Laurie

    February 9, 2012 at 11:34 PM

    The more I read this blog the more I learn about grandma. She always used Witch Hazel. I found this in Winki, "Witch Hazel is also used in treating psoriasis and eczema. In addition, Witch Hazel is sometimes found as an ingredient in eye drops".

    Scary! Thanks for another great post.

  • Anonymous

    February 10, 2012 at 2:29 AM

    If you look objectively at some of the photos, especially when the hair is down, these women have fried their hair into a total frizz. Keeping the hair oilier would probably keep it from being fly away and from feeling like a pot scrubber. What those women did to their hair and the fact that just about every medication had opium in it keep me from totally wishing I was a rich Victorian lady! If we could have modern medicine and hair care with Victorian dresses…I'd be a happy lady!

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:09 AM

      Absolutely true. There is a misconception about hair of the past being natural, long, wavy … no way … Edwardian women dyed, bleached, curled with hot irons, used FIRE to trim their split ends, teased, and applied all kinds of gnarly stuff to their hair.

  • Anonymous

    February 10, 2012 at 2:53 AM

    Thank you so much for all the Edwardian hair information. That book is fantastic! I inherited a stove top curling iron and a crimping iron from some obscure great aunt and they look almost exactly the same as the ones in the book. They were covered with charred bits of some ancient hair product but once they were cleaned they worked very well. I would highly recommend purchasing a stove top iron if you can find one, the stovetopness makes quite a difference. Not that I have much experience with electrical curling irons, but from what I've seen, the curls they make are a lot limper. Maybe they don't get hot enough?

    thanks again for this awesome series of posts!

    • Lauren R

      February 10, 2012 at 3:12 AM

      What a treat to have those irons! You can still find vintage and antique non-electrical marcel irons on eBay, usually needing a good cleaning, like you say. You are absolutely right about their ability to curl – there was no regulation on how hot they got. You could easily burn your hair if it got too hot. Some professional grade irons today get pretty hot, but most store-bought irons are government-regulated to keep us all from burning ourselves.

    • Anonymous

      February 10, 2012 at 9:22 PM

      Yes, they were pretty gross. I tried heating one of them right away, without thinking about what might be caked all over them. It did not smell nice. I don't think the crimping iron is a marcel iron, I'm not sure what you'd call it, it does a pair of big, sharp zig zags.

      P.S, Any news on the great button boot survey results?

  • Caroline

    February 10, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    Super fascinating! I was honestly just wondering yesterday what people of the era used in their hair! Lucky me to see this today.

    As for roughing up hair without bleaching/frying it, I've found that root pump spray (big sexy hair in the red bottle or queen for a day in a purple bottle – bedhead?) works really well. If you use an extra generous amount it makes your hair a good texture for taking period curls. It feels really nasty and straw-like though, so I don't recommend it for everyday. Just a little spritz at the crown for "normal" hair ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Caroline

      February 10, 2012 at 7:44 AM

      PS. The salon at the Capitol Hilton in DC used to, and maybe still does, offer hair trims using fire instead of scissors! Safety note (not that I think anyone would try this…): the hair must be completely free of products so you don't go up like a torch!

  • Anonymous

    February 11, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    My mom has been disappointed that no more pharmacies around her parts sell lanolin. She and her mom used to make skin creams and lotions from lanolin and essential oils when she was younger, apparently.

    I'm really happy to find information about period hair styling, since it's one of those mysteries that thoroughly baffles me with how complex a lady's coiffure was compared to today.

    Oh, and I wholeheartedly recommend boar bristle brushes, or a combination brush with those plastic prongs surrounded by bristles. My hair feels really thick, shiny, and less frail compared to pre-bristle use. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Julia

    February 13, 2012 at 11:54 AM

    Antique hair shampoos are weird, but I think modern shampoo ingredients are even more frightening. I once googled the ingredients listed on the shampoo bottle to find out what Paraffinum liquidum, Parabene, Sodium Laureth Sulfate etc. actually ARE.
    It was shocking. I would rather pour Edwardian poison on my head than use conventional modern shampoo again.


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