Podcast Episode 7: Did They Have BUGS in Their Hair?! 18th Century Hair & Hygiene

Hi All –

Abby here and I am very pleased to release this weeks episode of Fashion History with American Duchess – “Hair, Hygiene, and the 18th Century Woman” – as it is the first of a 2 part series devoted to my favorite research subject on hair, hairstyles, hair products, hair care, etc in the 18th century.

An oldey from my private Instagram account – a good shot of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of pomade and powdering your hair

It’s a subject I’ve been researching for about 4 years now, and while I’ve give some lectures at Costume Society of America, University of Alberta, and Costume College – this is really the first time I’ve been able to speak on this subject on such a public platform. I really hope you enjoy the episode & if you have any questions – please leave them in the comment section!

Here’s the summary of what Lauren and I chat about –

– How long I’ve been studying 18th century hair on an academic level.

– The basics of the hair products that were used in the 18th century (Pomatum/Pomade and Hair Powder). I also lament the difficulties in studying 18th century hair pins – ugh – so frustrating!

– What these products were made of (animal fat, starch, and other fun goodies!) and how they smell (like cookies.)

– How were the products used & what are some challenges with them (hint – follow instructions and don’t get your hair wet!)

Miss Rattle dressing for the Pantheon, March 28 1772, Lewis Walpole Digital Collection, 772.03.28.01

– How long I did my ‘living experiment’ (1 year or so – give or take – and while I don’t use powder and pomade today in my hair care regime – I still only wash my hair about once or twice a week max.)

-How successful was powder and pomatum as a form of hair care/cleanliness. (Spoiler: I did not get lice, fleas, vermin, or suffer any scalp issues)

-We talk about how the use of powder and pomatum changes women’s hair texture and is amazing for fine haired girls like Lauren and me.

My hair, dressed in a style from c. 1781 – You can see how much powder & pomatum (and backcombing!) I used for my side curls (or buckles). (From a post on my old blog Stay-ing Alive)

– We chat about why we think wigs are still so heavily associated with women in the 18th century though it seems that the standard practice was for men to wear full wigs, while women most commonly utilized pads, cushions, and false hair pieces. Wigs for women seemed to be used in very specific instances.

– Lauren and I have a massive giggle about the disaster that is getting your hair wet after pomatum and powder & my thoughts on the idea of washing hair in the 1700s –

– I rave about this PhD by Emma Markiweitz on Hair, Wigs, and the Hair Trade in the 18th century.

– I also address the myth about lice, fleas, vermin, etc from the 18th century. Let’s just say, it’s a pest peeve of mine (har har – see what I did there?) 😀

The Lovely Sacarissa Dressing for the Pantheon, Feb 24, 1778, British Museum, J,1.150

So all sorts of fun stuff this week & don’t forget to tune in next week when we talk about different hair styles of women in the 18th century!

A Selection of Citations

I prefer to do most of my research through primary sources and will supplement with secondary. Here is a small selection of documentation that I’ve used through the course of my research.

A Treatise on the Hair, David Ritchie, 1770, Book

The Art of Hair – Dressing, Alexander Stewart, 1788, Book

The Natural Production of Hair, Alexander Stewart, 1795, Book

A Treatise on the Hair, Peter Giltchrist, 1770, Book

Toilet de Flora, Anon, 1770s, Book (Link is to a free version on GoogleBooks!)

Hair, Wigs and Wig Wearing in Eighteenth-Century England, Emma Markiewicz, PhD Thesis for University of Warwick

Lice and Clean Hair 


  • Unknown

    June 16, 2017 at 4:23 PM

    this podcast was awesome! I didn't know the pomatum, hair care treatments in the 18th Century. I'm fascinated that they recommended trimming the ends of the hair.

  • Ticia

    June 17, 2017 at 10:43 PM

    This was so fascinating. We went to Colonial Williamsburg again this fall and had a lovely discussion with the wigmaker, but didn't really touch on what women did as much.

  • The Quintessential Clothes Pen

    June 20, 2017 at 4:14 PM

    Thanks for sharing your expertise, Abby. There's lots to learn here.

    I'm curious if you have ever run across information on styling curly hair from this period and if it is any different than how you would treat and style straight hair?


    • Abby

      June 20, 2017 at 7:49 PM

      Hi Quinn,

      I have some experience working with curly hair and some different hair textures while I was really heavy in my research. The next episode we talk about styles, etc, but I can't remember how much I go into working with different hair textures. If I don't – I can elaborate more about the subject for you. 🙂

    • Renate Seline Zaz

      June 21, 2017 at 5:11 AM

      I was going to ask the same question! I also have fine thin hair, but it's curly – just wondering what this process was like for women with naturally curly hair!

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    June 20, 2017 at 6:53 PM

    I can't listen but love the precis. I too only wash my hair once a week, or less, and I oil it instead of conditioning. I do a lot of styling for stage and the information I've gathered over years of reading costuming blogs led me quickly to not teasing or curling my hair but combining it with pads and pieces tat match it instead. Nothing historical about what I do, but thank you for pointing me in the direction of healthy and styleable long hair 🙂

  • E.A.

    June 22, 2017 at 4:59 PM

    This is unrelated but I was wondering what you thought about using 100% cotton fusible interfacing to stiffen a layer when making stays. I just did that and am regretting my decision a little since I didn't know if it was the best idea. Will it make me boiling because of the glue bit or will the fact that the interfacing is 100% cotton help. Was it even a good idea in the first place? Thanks so much and love the blog and podcasts!

  • Unknown

    June 23, 2017 at 9:18 PM

    Did all women (regardless of social class) pomade and powder their hair? It seems almost too elegant to imagine a working woman with powdered hair haha but I've been wondering ever since I listened. Love the podcast by the way!

  • Green Martha

    September 13, 2017 at 3:58 PM

    Listenign belatedly to the podcast, re : lice. The most efficient lice treatments today are basically an oily base (to choke the lice and make the larvae glide out) and some essential oil (as a repellent). So from what I understand, pomatum would actually be a very good way to kill any lice that might try to make a home on your scalp.

  • Trudi

    October 13, 2017 at 8:20 PM

    Love this! Bravo! I went on a hair experiment recently … 2 yrs without washing my hair with soap. The 2nd year I learned of the pommade and powder and then utilized that as part of my regiment. Altho I did not have access to appropriate period pommade I feel the experiment worked well! My hair had oily days and dry days but by adjusting the pommade and powder appropriately allowed my hair to be styled amazingly well. Up-do's held all day! I used cornstarch colored with cinnamon & cocoa powder to make it more brown and applied it lightly after using a modern type of pommade. My only problem was trying to use a curling iron. DO NOT do this. You will smell like burnt hair! During the year of pommade and powder I only used water to wash my hair. No soaps. (Strange experiment, I know). My hair stayed healthy and very manageable. Now I am interested in Making my own pomade…ive got some deer tallow in the freezer waiting to find time and a recipe!

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