My Experiment with Regency-Era “Shampoo”

My Experiment with Regency-Era “Shampoo”

I once watched a reality show about a family who chose to live like Victorians for six months. One of the most memorable segments for me was when the mom and daughters snuck out to a drugstore to buy modern shampoo. They simply couldn’t stand to wash their hair the way Victorians did.

This made me wonder how people washed their hair during the Regency era, so I did a little research. I discovered that it was during the Regency Era that “shampooing” became available to people in England. Sake Dean Mahomed opened a shampooing bath in Brighton, England in 1814. He claimed that shampoo was “a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when every thing fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame legs, aches and pains in the joints”. His “shampoos” were not what we think of today as shampoos, though. They were more like massages with aromatic oils.

People generally used harsh lye soaps dissolved in water to wash their hair. Hair powders had gone out of style by the Regency Era, but women still used pomades made from lard and grease. It’s likely many people also used egg washes to clean their hair. The Jane Austen Centre published a recipe on their blog, entitled “Wash for the Hair” that was originally published in The Mirror of Graces by a Lady of Distinction in 1811. It reads as follows:

This is a cleanser and brightener of the head and hair, and should be applied in the morning.
Beat up the whites of six eggs into a froth, and with that annoint the head close to the roots of the hair. Leave it to dry on; then wash the head and hair thoroughly with a mixture of rum and rose-water in equal quantities.

The blog notes that “it’s worth a try . . .”, so I thought I’d try it. Here are my before pictures:

As you can see, my hair is on the wavy side, and in true Regency style, I am not wearing any makeup.

The recipe calls for six egg whites. I didn’t think I needed that many, so I used only four. (It turns out, I could have used only one or two.)

My mom taught me how to separate eggs when I was a teenager, and trying to keep the yolks out of the whites was probably one of the most frustrating things I ever experienced in the kitchen. I did finally master the technique, but I don’t think you need to be too much of a perfectionist when you’re making an egg wash for your hair.

The recipe says to beat the eggs into a froth, so I whipped them around for a minute with a wire whisk, which made me wonder whether people had wire whisks during Regency times. I looked it up, and it turns out the wire whisk was a Victorian inventions. During the Regency Era, people probably improvised wood brushes to beat egg whites.

Annointing my roots with whipped egg whites was quite an experience. It felt like a stiff hair gel, and you can probably tell from the picture below that instead of making my hair look wet and flat, my hair stuck out more and more as I massaged it in. I flattened it down a bit for this picture.

I followed the instructions, leaving the egg white on to dry, which, frankly, I was dreading. However, it wasn’t that terrible. It felt much like the curl cream I use and didn’t have any scent. It also dried into a nice, clear shine.

The recipe says to rinse thoroughly with equal parts rum and rose water. Since I don’t have either of those items in my house, I looked up the prices–both items run around fifteen dollars. I wasn’t about to spend thirty dollars on my experimental shampoo treatment, so I improvised with a vinegar, water, and lavender essential oil rinse.

It took a lot more rinsing than I anticipated to get the egg white out of my hair. Had I been actually using rum for that task, I would have used up an entire pirate’s boatload, but since I live in modern times, I simply stood under the shower after I used up all my vinegar solution.

My hair still felt rough and tangled after the rinse, and I was tempted to apply some conditioner. I was glad I didn’t, however, because once I combed it out, it felt perfectly conditioned. Also, my hair had a pleasant lavender scent.

Surprisingly, my hair turned out pretty well. Here are the after pictures:

My son thought that my hair looked better with the egg treatment than with my normal shampoo regimen. He may be right, but the egg treatment certainly took longer, especially since I had to let the egg whites dry on my hair before rinsing them out. From start to finish, it probably took me about five hours to wash, dry, rinse, and dry my hair. No wonder the recipe says to start in the morning!

This coming week when we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States, I will add shampoo to the long list of modern conveniences for which I am grateful. What about you? Have you ever tried an old-fashioned beauty treatment? How did it turn out? What modern conveniences are you most grateful for?

24 Responses to My Experiment with Regency-Era “Shampoo”

  1. Since greying, I’ve skipped more shampoos and my hair looks so much better. I used to do henna, but that took forever, much like your egg white experiment here. Five hours and a huge mess later, it looked good but now with one bathroom and five people in the house it’s just not feasible anymore.

    I still use normal shampoo once or twice a week, but what works wonders for me is my boar bristled brush. Granted I’m brushing my hair alot more, but looks great and not as messy as the henna, and I’m not as “witchy” as with daily shampooing.

    And yes, thankful for good hygiene, sewage, trash removal, antibiotics, etc. An outhouse just isn’t appealing to me at all, ha!

  2. I’m impressed with the egg wash shampoo. Your hair did look great! I don’t know that I noticed enough of a difference that it’s worth five hours, though. That was very fun 🙂

    As for conveniences, I like so very many of them. Air conditioning. Heat that doesn’t involve burning wood, coal or peat in my home. Writing on a computer instead of with a typewriter. Spell check! My induction cook top. Tea in teabags. Refrigerators. Paved roads. Airplanes. Hot water and indoor plumbing. Yes, hot water and pluming very well might top my list, though I’m also quite fond of owning property and voting 🙂

  3. Oh boy that’s a long process! No wonder people use the excuse “I’m washing my hair”, it all makes sense now! Your hair does look great though! There are modern conveniences and hygiene I just can never imagine giving up (toiletries and health/medicine)!

  4. When I was a teen, I had issues with oily hair and it was suggested by someone that a vinegar rinse would help with that, so I tried it. I don’t remember that it worked for the oil, but I do remember that I could smell the vinegar and worried that other people could too. I don’t know if I didn’t rinse it out well enough or what. Anyway, I’m grateful for the hair products we have now. They are a vast improvement even over what was available when I was young. I have always heard that the old “100 strokes a day” brushing routine was one of the ways they kept their hair clean because the brushes were usually boar bristles, and not only did they clean the dust and lint out of the hair, but all those strokes pulled the oils down the hair shaft to naturally condition the hair. I’ve also heard (although I’ve never tested the theory) that the body naturally adapts to less frequent washing of the hair, producing less oil. I think the only way to know for sure would be to give it a go for a long enough period for that adaptation to happen.

  5. Fun experiment, Rebecca! I think people washed their hair much less frequently back then (but hey, by the Regency at least they were past the massive Georgian up-dos that were left so long they’d get infested with all sorts of vermin) so I guess a five hour wash regimen wouldn’t have been as bad if it was done every once and awhile.

  6. This was an interesting looking experiment and the pictures of your hair after looked nice. The only beauty experiments I can think of hat I have tried on my hair is to let yogurt sit in my hair for 5 – 10 minutes before my shower to help condition and get the grease out and the second hair beauty experiment I have tried I modified and just add baking soda to my shampoo and it gets the grease out easier as well as keeps your hair clean longer. I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. I have never tried that and don’t intend to!lol That seems like the long ways around of course in Victorian times that was probably the on!y way. I am very thankful for shampoo!

  8. Do you think that pins would have stayed in better? Perhaps that feeling of dirtiness would actually give some staying power to an updo.

  9. I’ve heard my mom say they used lye soap, vinegar and rain water from large cisterns to wash their hair when she was growing up. We are definitely spoiled and have a lot to be thankful for. Thank you for sharing!

  10. I remember as a teen hearing of my friends rinsing their hair with beer. Another friend had naturally curly hair and we used an iron [yeah, the one we used to iron shirts] to smooth out the curls. I had heard of the use of vinegar as a rinse. This post was so informative. I am sure that in the far, far future they will look back on us and cringe at what we regularly use for our toilette.

    • Modern inventions save us so much time. I don’t often consider that, but it’s given us so much freedom to have laundry machines, ovens, cars, etc. I often think if I lived in Austen’s time, would I have been a servant or a lady?

  11. Great experiment. The result looks great although it sounds very time consuming. Too much time for me to want to try, perhaps that’s why the family living like Victorians decided to sneak out for modern shampoo. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  12. It’s amazing how I never thought about this before. All the books I’ve read with Elizabeth washing her hair and I never wondered what she used (although I do remember one saying she rinsed it using the roses Darcy bought her). A lot of books mention his desire to run his fingers through her hair so do you think yours would have passed the fingers test?
    I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that if I lived in Regency times I would have to have access to a wormhole allowing me to travel to the 21st century to use the bathroom facilities and to buy toiletries.
    Thanks for going to so much trouble to test it out and yes I think it would have been a tad expensive to buy a couple of barrels of rum!!! ?

    • My hair definitely felt different. It felt dirty to me when I ran my fingers through it, but it didn’t look dirty. In fact, it lasted a couple of days before I needed to shampoo again. A wormhole would definitely have to be an option for me too. 🙂

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