Hair care for men and women: Victorian - 1950s
This page describes how men and women used to care for their hair differently: their uses of soap, shampoos, dry shampoos and vinegar for washing and rinsing hair; and their different styles of brushes, combs and lotions for keeping hair tidy. Brylcreem for men is included.
Frequency of the hair wash
It seemed to me, growing up in the 1940s that ordinary people didn't wash their hair as often as they said that they did, and I knew that this was the case for my parents' and grandparents' generations. There was talk of preserving the scalp's natural oils and of not allowing the 'damp to get into you'.
Why hairing wash was so unpleasant
As a child growing up in the 1940s, I dreaded my mother washing my hair. This was because she had the old-idea that if you got wet, "the dampness went into you and gave you a cold". So my hair was never allowed to dry naturally; it was rubbed and rubbed with a towel until it was dry. Can you imagine the tangles! To make matters worse, my hair was long. (It was in plaits during the day.)
Then when my mother had decided that the tangled mass was dry, she would drag a comb through it - which tore it out. Later my aunt told me to not to bother to dry my hair with a towel, but just to comb it while it was still wet, starting from the ends away from the roots and then progressively combing from a little bit further up. I have never looked back.
Soap or shampoo and what else
My mother used plain soap for washing my hair, but in my teens I used shampoo. Shampoos were not common until the late 1950s, although one called Drene had existed in the 1930s. My father washed his hair with soap all this life right up until he died in the early 1970s.
How we made hair shine
In my home, to make hair shine after washing, it was rinsed with vinegar and rain water from the water-butt outside.
A powder known as a dry shampoo was available for when one didn't or couldn't wash one's hair in the normal way. I did try it once. It was brushed into the hair where it absorbed the greasiness. It did nothing to cleanse the scalp, and as it never brushed out properly, taking all the shine out of the hair. At the time, it was widely thought that women should not wash their hair while they had a period.
Hair brushes and combs
Brushing hair was more common than combing. As this was before plastics became commonplace, combs were either made of bone, tortoiseshell or metal. So in real terms they were more expensive than the combs of today.
Brushes were bristle, set into wood which was widely available and cheap. Numerous small farms reared pigs for food, making their bristles a by-product.
Nits and lice in hair were not uncommon, and even as recently as the 1940s, I remember the nit-nurse coming to school to check every child's hair for them. For treatment, there was a powder, but also a special nit comb which had its teeth very close together to drag out the nits as it combed. Most families had one, as mine did, but it was probably inherited as I never saw it being used.
Brushing hair for women and girls
For women and girls, hair brushing routines were widely favoured and usually rigorously followed. Or perhaps I should say that when we fell short of the designated 100 strokes a day, we felt guilty. It did get rid of some of the dust and it certainly made hair shine but it also encouraged greasiness.
The sort of brushes looked hardly different from wood and bristle ones sold today in that they had a handle.
Brushing hair for men and boys
Men's and boys' hair brushes were different from women's and girls' ones in that they didn't have handles. I don't know if there was a practical reason for this or whether it was just fashion. These hair brushes came in pairs. The body of the brushes were held, one in each hand, and both hands were used at the same time for what was really merely styling.
For how women and girls curled their hair and how the tools available affected hairstyles see the above menu. It would not have been acceptable for men to curl their hair.
I never knew anything of the 100 brush strokes a day for men and boys or of brushing causing their greasy hair. Any greasiness due to brushing would not have noticed anyway because it was fashion for men and boys' hair to be smarmed down with a grease or lotion called Brylcreem. 'Smarmed down' is my description; they would have called it being groomed or tidy.
Rather than show you yet another Brylcreem ad, here are some cartoon extracts from one:
Text from a full-page ad
Brylcreem ought to have sold well with all that advertising - and it did! My father always had a jar in the bathroom.
To prevent easy-chairs becoming greasy from men's hair, all households used chairbacks which could be washed. There is a photo of a chairback on the page about general furnishings.