Georgian Hair – A Woman’s Crowning Glory and Its Care

Georgian hair

Marie Antoinette in 1785, Courtesy of Wikipedia

By the late Georgian era, gone were the towering headdresses. In its place was a woman’s natural hair, considered her crowning glory. With a more natural look and styles taken from the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, women attempted to achieve a gorgeous head of hair. Hair color was one of the most important aspects. Fortunately, if a women did not like the color of her hair, she could change it. Once a woman had the right hair color numerous tips existed for washing it. One writer advised it should be “occasionally well washed with soap-and-water,” although there were also critics who opposed hair washing all together. To keep the hair glossy and shiny, combing and brushing came next, and, according to one nineteenth century writer, “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.” 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. To preserve the hairstyle and ensure it lasted for more than a day, women often wore nightcaps.

As mentioned, one of the first things a woman considered was the color of her hair. If she wanted to change the color, she could accomplish it in several different ways. One way to create black hair involved washing the 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 it was promised that by doing so “at the end of eight days at most the hair will turn black.” 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.

Although there were some people who opposed washing the hair, other people claimed it was important if you wanted glossy locks. One writer 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 hair could be cleansed “semi-weekly, or even oftener.” One writer also maintained that 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.'” When washing the hair, the water could be tepid or cold, depending on preference. If hard water was used or if the scalp was dirty or thick with scurf, “a few grains of soda (not potash or pearlash) … [could] be … added.” 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,” and to do it by holding the head over the tub, pan, or basin, and sluicing the water over it. Excess water was then squeezed out by hand and carefully wiped with a soft thick towel to avoid tangles.

Madame Raymond de Verninac, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Madame Raymond de Verninac, Courtesy of Wikipedia

If a woman opposed washing her hair, at the very least she needed to brush it. For those who brushed their hair and didn’t wash it, they were advised to brush it using “hortshorn.” Hortshorn was an aqueous ammonia solution used as smelling salts. 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.

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.” Brushing in this direction continued until all the scurf missed during the first brushing 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.”

If the scalp was unhealthy or the hair dry, oil or pomade was added next and done so on a daily basis. This was accomplished by placing two, three, or four “drops of oil, or a corresponding quantity of pomatum [in the palms.]” The palms 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.

Curling-tongs or crisping irons followed the oil or pomade. The hair was parted and adjusted with a coarse ended comb and “again well brushed to give it smoothness and set.” 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.” 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.”

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

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

At the end of the day, every woman had to decided whether or not to retire wearing a nightcap. Apparently, there was an ongoing debate as to whether or not it preserved a hair style.  Nightcaps for hairdo preservation were created from “some light material, and of easy fit,” but even the lightweight ones were opposed by some critics, and, at least one critic noted, “there is nothing that tend[s] more to head-achs [sic], colds, catarrhs, coughs, and several other diseases, than keeping the head warm.” 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.” Jane Austen agreed and talked about the benefits of nightcaps in a letter to her sister Cassandra: “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.”


  • Cooley, Arnold James, The Toilet and Cosmetic Arts in Ancient and Modern Times, 1866
  • Hutton, Charles, The Diarian Miscellany, 1775
  • Letters of Jane Austen, Vol. 1, 1884
  • The Art of Preserving the Hair, on Philosophical Principles, 1825
  • Sinclair, Sir John, The Code of health and Longevity, 1818
  • The New Family Receipt-book, 1820
  • The Toilet of Flora, 1779

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