Interesting enough for early Colonial Americans, bathing often did not involve soap.
On the smaller farm holdings, it was sometimes weeks or months before the men forayed into town for supplies. Because of the isolation, they never saw another human being besides their families. The women were the most isolated, since it was usually the husband who drove into town. It could be years before the wife saw anyone, left with only the children for company. So why would they bother to try and stay clean?
Townsfolk were a little pickier about their personal hygiene, since they did go out and meet with others, socializing and visiting. Even then, the poorer town folk could barely afford soap, so made do with good scrubbings with water before wandering out the door.
Soap making actually made its debut in pre-Roman Empire times, by the Babylonians who actually used soap to prepare animal fibers for weaving, and had nothing to do with cleanliness. It was only when Roman physicians began using soap in the treatment of disease in the early half of the second century that it gained recognition as a cleaning agent. It quickly evolved into a staple of personal hygiene and household cleaning.
Making soap was considered a time consuming, smelly, toxic chore. It was used sparingly only when absolutely necessary. More often, it was used to clean linens more than their bodies, and not just because it was troublesome to make. Because lye soap was extremely harsh on the skin, regular use was not prevalent until 1830 or thereabouts, probably due to “a new fastidiousness about body odor that increased the labor required to achieve decency,” according to one Boston newsman complaining about the increased stink in the town and its residents.
It was at this time that making scented oils to add to the caustic lye soap was also becoming much easier and cheap to produce, though for many years after, scented soap was still mostly the domain of the rich.
As I mentioned, soap was more commonly used to launder their clothing, which was time consuming in itself. It was considered far more efficient to either clean their clothes or clean themselves, but not both. So they washed their bodies with plain water (unless you were exceptionally dirty) and put clean clothing on. Often rose water, which was actually a vinegar and acidic, closed sweat pores and was used as a stop gap between washings, just like modern deodorant does.
Soap makers added salt to the basic recipe and produced hard soap that was formed into sheets and sold by the pound. Store-bought soap became increasingly popular as manufacturers were able to produce consistently high quality soap at a relatively cheap price. Scented oils were added to the caustic lye soap, though scented soap was mostly the domain of the rich. Common essential oils used were lavender, violet and sandalwood, which held the most appeal to people.
It was only in the first half the nineteenth century when people became a bit more fragrant, according to our modern noses, anyway.
Since soap was so caustic, it’s no wonder no one wanted to use it on their hair. It left hands red and rough, so one can only imagine what it would do to hair.
In fact, not much is known about eighteen century hair care. There certainly doesn't seem to be any written records, no recipes, nothing that would seem to help. It provides a distinct problem for novelists and even non-fiction writers when describing personal care.
One thing is certain. Hair was washed far less than it is today. Imagine all those thick, long locks and how long it would take to dry in front of a fire, or outside in the sun. Hair styles reflected this problem with the elaborate and up-swept fashions that served to conceal oily and scraggly hair. Most styles involved braiding or knots covered by dainty caps or bonnets.
Can you imagine how long it took for this hair to dry and style?
So, what did they use then, if soap was out of the question because of its highly damaging effects, even making the hair fall out after use?
The only conclusion we can make is that they used plain water. In fact, there has been some reference to saving rain water, even though most had safe wells to draw their water from. Why rain water? Records indicate that rain water left hair shiny and silky, possibly because it lacked the mineral interference from ground well water. Oily hair is naturally resistant to water, as we all know when trying to wash a greasy pan, or get grease off your hands. However water, if worked with vigor on scalp and hair strands, can be quite effective on getting dirt from the hair.
The natural oils, when left behind, actually made the hair softer, shinier and easier to handle. After all, most modern shampoos have detergent of some sort, leaving hair dry and fly-away, and even dulls the shine.
An experiment was conducted with en-actors of historical events. For accuracy sake and to test the theory, they only washed their hair with water as they speculated they did during the era. After a few weeks of never using shampoo or any kind of soap, their systems adjusted and their hair actually became soft and shiny, not in the least oily. So dedicated were they that they continued with this regimen for a whole year or more. It stayed soft, shiny, and far less oily than if they had used shampoo.
But now another problem arises; the smell of wet hair. As our modern noses got used to perfumes and soap smell, the natural smell of wet hair would be unpleasant indeed. For people of that time, however, it was not a huge problem. Rose water or other scents were often used if the lady wanted to be extra fragrant. Some men even regularly used “pomades” to scent hair and clothing. Some popular rinses were rosemary tea, or apple cider vinegar if they didn’t have rose water available.
There was another treatment regularly applied to ensure hair remained lice and pest free, to maintain its healthy appearance and feel. That old adage, “100 strokes a night” before bed, holds true. It not only de-tangled those long locks, but it also distributed the natural oil of the hair to the ends and preventing excessive oiliness at the roots and dryness at the bottom, cutting down on split ends. If a woman had an excessively oily scalp, right after washing they would vigorously rub the scalp to “wipe away” any excessive oil that wasn’t rinsed by the water.
It was also around this time that England outlawed slavery, finding the trade in human flesh distasteful. Now, you will have to bear with me on this, because an innovative product came about that would revolutionize cosmetics later on.
To prevent the embargo on slave ships entering English ports, the normal first stop for any slaver, American started to ship slaves directly to Southern areas like Florida, Brazil, Columbia, Guiana, Venezuela, and the Caribbean, most destined to work on sugar and coffee plantations. However, some were bought by slave traders from the Americas and transported by land north, to be enthusiastically purchased by tobacco plantations and large farmers. When some of these slaves came north, they brought with them a new concoction called “coconut oil”.
In South America, not only was coconut oil plentiful, but it was commonly used for cooking and frying. One can only surmise that it was also accidently discovered to be perfect for softening the skin and used as a moisturizer. The black people started to liberally use it not only their bodies, but they also discovered that the oil and milk from this fruit made the hair shiny and healthier, and it was even reported that older slaves delayed greying of the hair by using it regularly. For most women it was slow to catch on, seeing it as a “black beauty” procedure. They believed that this co-co-nut oil would result in their skin becoming darker, and since white skin was a sign of beauty and prosperity, they stayed well clear of it for a long time. Instead, they stuck to their arsenic and mercury laden cosmetics that eventually killed a good many women.
Marie-Antoinette: France had already become the leader in fashion, both in clothing and hair styles, thanks to this very reviled but often imitated trend setter.
However, there were also some forward thinking women that, when they discovered their slaves using it, quickly implemented the same toilette regime, delighting in softer skin and using it in their hair to tame the elaborate hair styles, as well as enjoying vibrantly colored hair that the oil accented. It also helped to cut down and reduce the effects of sea salt for those living on the coast. Sea salt often dried the hair and caused a straw-like consistency.
Coconut oil is still used extensively today in many cosmetic products, because of its natural makeup appealing to those who hate using chemicals, and because of its wonderful moisturizing properties.
And so there you have it. I hope this helps future writers, so they don’t to skirt around the issue of hygiene before the 20th century, for shampoo did not make its appearance until then.
If you find any other information I may have missed, please let me know in comments, preferably with a link to the source. Any comments are a joy to me and make my day, so let's chat!