Women’s Hair in Georgian Times – Its Maintenance and Care

Women’s hair in Georgian times went from the towering headdresses that Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Duchess of Chartres had embraced and popularized to a more natural look. These new styles that began in the late 1700s were taken from styles popularized long ago by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. To achieve these styles, women embraced everything from the right color to brushing and combing their locks to sleeping in nightcaps.

Georgian hair

Marie Antoinette in 1785. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Color was probably one of the most important considerations for women’s hair in Georgian times and getting the right color could easily be accomplished through a lady’s maid as that one of the tasked she provided. As colors varied there were also several ways to get the right color. For instance, if a woman decided she wanted black hair that involved washing her hair with spring water, dipping a comb into oil of tartar, and combing the oil of tartar through the hair while sitting in the sun. This process was to be repeated three times a day. It was promised that by doing so “at the end of eight days at most the hair will turn black.”[1] Another method to achieve black locks involved mixing one ounce and a half of oil of costus and myrtle in a leaden mortar and then adding a half ounce of liquid Pitch, expressed juice of walnut leaves, and laudanum. To this mixture was added a drachm of gall nuts, black-lead and Frankincense, and a sufficient quantity of gum arabic made with a decoction of gall nuts. Flaxen hair could be achieved by taking a quart of lye prepared with the ashes of vine twigs. To this was added a half ounce of briony, celandine roots, and turmeric; two drachms of saffron and lily roots; and a drachm of flowers of mullein, yellow stechas, broom, and St. John’s-wort. The mixture was then boiled, the clear liquid strained off, and after several washings the result was flaxen hair.

Once the right hair color was achieved some hairdressers of women’s hair in Georgian times encouraged the hair be well maintained through washing it. In a book on cosmetics and toiletries, it was advised that the hair should be “occasionally well washed with soap-and-water,”[2] although there were also critics who opposed hair washing all together. They stated that it caused people to catch colds and other such things. However, those who supported hair washing claimed it was important for a woman to have glossy locks. One hair washing supporter advised that hair should be washed weekly, unless the person perspired freely, the head was exposed to dust and dirt on a regular basis, or if dandruff, known as scurf at the time, was a problem. If that was the case, the suggestion was that the hair could be cleansed “semi-weekly, or even oftener.”[3] It was also maintained that when washing the scalp a few grains of soda could be added to clean it and that no one need fear, the “popular dread of ‘catching cold’ from washing or wetting the head is groundless … [and] wetting the hair with rum brandy, or eau de Cologne, after it has been cut or washed, increases the liability to ‘take cold.'”[4]

After washing the hair great care was “subsequently taken to thoroughly rinse out the whole of the soap with the same water in which the head was … washed.”[5] To accomplish this it was reported best to hold your head over the tub, pan, or basin, and then sluice the water over it. Excess water was then squeezed out by hand and carefully wiped with a soft thick towel to avoid tangles.

Drawing of a woman washing her hair by William Hilton, produced between 1801-1839. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Another suggestion for women’s hair in Georgian times was combing and brushing, even if a woman washed her hair. Combing and brushing was suggested to keep a woman’s locks glossy and shiny. If a woman was opposed and didn’t wash her hair, then it was claimed that it was even more important for her to brush one’s hair. Supposedly, the best brushes were moderately long and fine, and brushing accomplished “gently and assiduously.” The hair was brushed straight or downwards in all directions, until it was “rendered quite smooth.” The motion and angle of the brush then changed assuming “a direction upward and across the head, or one contrary to that in which the brush was previously used.”[6] Brushing in this direction continued until all the missed dandruff, which was called scurf, was removed. The hair was then restored to its original position by using the original brushing motion so that the hair was “smoothly and equally distribute[d] … around the head from the crown downwards.”[7]

For those who brushed their hair and didn’t wash it, they were also advised to brush it using “hortshorn,” an aqueous ammonia solution used as smelling salts. In this instance, one of the main objects of combing or brushing was to remove grease, pomade, or scurf. Combing was usually done first, and one source noted that a coarse dressing comb could be applied if the hair was not long, tangled, or matted. However, if the hair was long, tangled, or matted, people brushed their hair instead of combing it.

It was also reported that “the oftener the comb and brush are subsequently used in the day, the better it will be for the luxuriance, smoothness, and set of the hair.”[8] But brushing was not the only prerequisite to luxurious hair. Sometimes oil or pomade was added, and, if the hair was styled, there were curling tongs, crisping irons, or papillotes, small pieces of paper that curled the hair and were humorously called paper shackles by one writer. If the scalp was unhealthy or the hair dry, oil or pomade was added next and done so daily. This was accomplished by placing two, three, or four “drops of oil, or a corresponding quantity of pomatum [in the palms,]”[9] which were then rubbed together and ran over the hair shafts with the object being to diffuse the oil and pomade without touching the scalp. Afterwards, the hair was brushed to further distribute and diffuse the oil or pomade evenly.

Georgian hair

A seated woman having her hair brushed by her lady’s maid. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Curling-tongs or crisping irons followed when it came to styling women’s hair in Georgian times. The hair was parted and adjusted with a coarse ended comb and “again well brushed to give it smoothness and set.”[10] If the style the woman wore was complex, she used rosemary-water or rosemary-tea to help set it in place, and, supposedly, any of the two liquids mentioned imparted “more gloss and stiffness to the hair than simple water.”[11] If the hair was dirty, powder might be added and with the hair’s natural oil it sometimes formed a paste, which, of course, helped to hold the style securely. One writer advised when styling the hair to avoid pulling or securing it too tight because doing so was damaging. Moreover, sometimes pins, combs, or pads were used, but they too were noted to be “all more or less injurious.”[12]

To preserve women’s hair in Georgian times and to ensure it lasted for more than a day, many women wore nightcaps, but at the end of the day, every woman had to decide whether to retire with one. Apparently, there was an ongoing debate as to whether nightcaps preserved hairstyles. Nightcaps that were claimed to do so were said to be best created from “some light material, and of easy fit,”[13] but even the lightweight ones were opposed by some critics. For instance, in The Diarian Miscellany it was noted, “there is nothing that tend[s] more to head-achs [sic], colds, catarrhs, coughs, and several other diseases, than keeping the head warm.”[14]

Mrs. Wheatly in her Nightcap by Francis Wheatly, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Mrs. Wheatly in her nightcap by Francis Wheatly. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Proponents of nightcaps argued they preserved their hairdos, “as, without … the hair is apt to get disordered during the night, and it is often difficult to subsequently restore it from the unnatural position and entangled state it may have assumed and been kept in for some hours.”[15] Jane Austen agreed and talked about the benefits of nightcaps in a letter to her sister Cassandra on 1 December 1798:

“They save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing, which at present gives me no trouble beyond washing and brushing, for my long hair is always plaited up out of sight, and my short hair curls well enough to want no papering.”[16]

Jane’s image on the English 10-pound note. Public domain.


  • [1] The Toilet of Flora, 1779, p. 10.
  • [2] Cooley, Arnold James, The Toilet and Cosmetic Arts in Ancient and Modern Times, 1866, p. 246.
  • [3] Ibid. p. 247.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid. p. 242.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 244.
  • [9] Ibid. p. 243.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid. p. 244.
  • [12] Ibid. p. 246.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Hutton, Charles, The Diarian Miscellany, 1775, p. 47.
  • [15] Cooley, Arnold James, p. 246.
  • [16] Letters of Jane Austen, Vol. 1, 1884, p. 147.

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