I can’t – I’m washing my hair!

When walking around any High Street chemist’s store these days, it’s easy to become confused with the vast array of hair care products available. From the basic shampoo and conditioner to the more mystifying gels and volumisers, there are hundreds of preparations promising to colour, repair, enhance or transform our crowning glory.

Likewise, when visiting a modern hairdresser’s, an up-to-date salon can appear at first more like a torture chamber! Technology has provided instruments that will style, crimp, curl and thicken, and all in the hands of a hairdresser whose role has become increasingly multi-faceted -chemist, artist, consultant and confidante.

When you compare this amazing choice to what was available 40 or 50 years ago, you can see how the whole ethos of hair care has changed, and readers might like to recall how we looked after our ‘Barnet fair’ back then.

The local hairdresser’s was a meeting point for ladies who could afford the luxury of a weekly ‘wash and set’. Conversation was never easy with one’s head swathed in curlers and thrust under a noisy drier, but we
managed! Perming was a very different experience from today, the whole process taking at least six uncomfortable hours wired up to an electric curling machine. Known as the Nessler after its inventor Karl Nessler, this was a dome-shaped instrument with up to a dozen attached wires. At the end of these wires were curlers which were clamped to the hair, literally singeing it into waves. The outcome was a mass of tight curls, often frizzy as the hair had been treated with direct heat. Today’s perms are ‘cold-wave’ using well-tested solutions which, apart from being much kinder to the hair, take less than two hours to complete.

The home coiffure did not involve mousse or volumising rinse – indeed many of us did not have the luxury of shampoo, hair was washed with carbolic or coal tar soap, and the ever-present Borax was used with various other solutions to enhance our shining locks. Compromise was the name of the game, particularly during the war years. In the absence of setting lotion, sugar and water made a sticky but effective substitute. A brown hair dye could be made from the ‘tincture of the shucks of walnuts’ mixed with a little
lavender oil. Those wanting black hair could choose the lethal-sounding cocktail of silver nitrate, nickel sulphate and ammonia. An alternative hair wash was obtained by combining Borax, boiling water and camphor, so our hair wasn’t just clean – it was moth-free, too!

In those earlier, simpler times we were advised to brush our hair 100 times morning and night. This was said to enhance its natural lustre. Upon hearing such advice, today’s hairdresser would throw up hands in horror, crying: “Oh, no. It will overactivate your sebaceous glands and make it really greasy!” Washing our hair more than once a week was thought to be damaging, and no-one ventured out on ‘hair wash evening’ for fear of catching pneumonia at the very least!

It’s interesting, too, to compare a few prices between then and now. In 1945 the cost of a perm averaged 10/- (50p) whereas a modern saloon in the medium price range would charge around £50. Back then a wash and set cost 21- (1 Op) compared to £10 today. These days a 200ml bottle of shampoo costs up to £2, whereas in the 1940s a bar of carbolic soap could be bought for a few coppers.
Apart from the difference in prices, the amount of time we spend on our hair has changed dramatically. Whatever your choice of style washing, drying and preparation generally took at least three hours. Few households had electric hair driers, so drying was done either with a brisk towel or by kneeling in front of the fire. Now, with the advent of portable high-speed driers and heated rollers, you can style in minutes -so nowadays declining an invitation with: “I can’t – I’m washing my hair” would be viewed with suspicion.

Considering that back then we washed our hair with soap, literally burned or singed it into waves and had none of the conditioning rinses available today, a thought occurs: in films and photographs from the 1930s and 40s ladies’ hair generally appeared sleek, glossy and well-cared-for. Perhaps it isn’t always the product, but instead the care and attention we pay that makes the difference. I leave you to discuss that with your hairdresser or chemist.

Next time you cannot decide between oil of evening primrose shampoo or Viang Yland conditioner, spare a thought for the days when the only choice was hobson’s!

Carole Dawson