We all have looked at ourselves in the mirror each morning, thinking “how’s my hair?” And we’re not the only ones asking that question. Our ancestors have done the same. Some of the earliest evidence of human civilization prove that hair care was a dominant theme in the everyday rituals of our ancestors.
So we decided to dive into the history of Hair Care through the Ages – to discover the earliest known methods of treatment, hair styling, and general hair care throughout history.
Hairstyles have defined epochs and in some cultures, they even served as a marker for class and status.
The infamous Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, mimicked the Roman ways of dissociating from lower social classes – she sported elaborate hairstyles that were as complex as they were innovative.
Some of her more memorable hairstyles included a model ship! This particular hair styling obsession of the last queen of France actually led to an increase in demand for hairdressers then.
Before that, the members of aristocracy would usually have maids tend to their hair. They would be in charge of cutting, washing, and maintaining hair. The gentlemen had valets – male servants who groomed them, hair to toe.
Hairdressing is a somewhat recent vocation – the very first use of the word dates back to the 17th century. But hair care, and elaborate hairstyles, have a much older history.
Prehistory of Hair
When it comes to hairstyles, trends seem to be cyclical. Every two generations or so, varying versions of “dated” or previously popular styles make their way back into mainstream culture.
One of the earliest hairstyles known to us dates back to the prehistoric period.
A sculpture from 30,000 years ago, called the Venus of Brassempouy, depicts a braided hairstyle.
Similar findings, dating back to the Ice Age, are similar to the Brassempouy sculpted hairstyle. The statue of Venus of Willendorf has a coil of braids wrapped around her head, a style popular even today.
It is no surprise that archeological excavations reveal grooming tools, especially hair combs. These are usually made from wood or bone, but some of the early civilizations made combs out of ivory and gold.
Other Ancient Hairstyles
Some of our predecessors went to extreme, even potentially dangerous lengths for their hairstyles.The kings of the Assyrian Empire, dating back to 2500 B.C., were known for their remarkably curly hair.
The process of achieving this rather characteristic look involved a pretty simple yet delicate process. They took a flat iron bar and shoved it in the fire till the bar began to glow red, and then used this flaming, glowing bar as a hair curler!
We have the Assyrians to thank for our modern day curling irons and equipment. They were indeed fashion forward when it came to hair tool innovations!
In ancient Mesopotamia (from 3100 B.C. – 539 B.C.), women of higher social rankings used silver and golden combs for their hair. These metals were associated with wealth and class, like they are today. They even dyed their hair with gold based colors. The Sumerian men, on the other hand, had a particular beard trimming method, making them sharper, pointed and square-like in terms of their shapes.
Hairstyles in Ancient China were, like other cultures, markers of social status but, unlike other cultures, also markers of religion and even occupation. Imagine what a bad hair day could mean in ancient China!
Did you know that the record for the longest hair in the world is held by Xie Qiuping, a woman from China, with her astonishing 8.5 feet of hair? Not all of us are blessed with that amount of patience to maintain that length of hair, especially not today when shorter hairstyles are the fashion simply because they’re easier to maintain.
Back in the 10th century B.C. the Egyptians were the first to introduce headdresses, and more importantly – hair extensions.
Did you know that one of the oldest mummies found in the predynastic period in Egypt (3500 BC), was a guy with blond hair? Well, more of a strawberry-blonde, which is why he’s referred to as The Ginger Mummy!
Egyptians too used hairstyles as markers of social class, but they were also an indicator of one’s age. From mummies of children discovered from the period, we can conclude that they had their heads clean shaven until they touched puberty. After they reached the milestone, they were given the opportunity to choose between letting their hair grow or keep it shaven.
The use of wigs was also very popular in those days. One’s hair didn’t necessarily define their gender, so you could see long, wavy wigs being worn by men and women of all ages.
Rome’s conquest of the Greek peninsula in 509 B.C. was particularly interesting in terms of hair-related matters!
The Greeks, like the Egyptians, had unique hair styling methods. Romans usually wore long beards with long hair to match. The Greeks, by contrast, had short hair cuts they wore with stylish curls and ornaments. Romans admired them enough to adopt the “Greek look.” Horace, a famous Roman poet of the time, once said about the Roman fascination about Greek hair styling:
Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror.
Julius Caesar sported the Greek style quite well. Even today, the “Caesar Cut” is a oft requested style at barber shops and salons.
Irrespective, hair styling requires hair care. And the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians et. al created lasting hair care methods. Let’s take a look at some of these methods here.
Ancient Hair Care Methods
Without the luxury of a simple online order and brick/mortar stores, our ancestors played the game of trial and error when it came to hair care methods. As a result they created some iconic ones that we use even today!
Some of the earliest hair dyes can be found in ancient Egypt. The early Egyptians cared about how their hair looked so much that they colored it with lead-based crystals. Of course, they weren’t aware of its long term effect, but today we do know that this probably didn’t help with their short life spans. They also used henna, a herb colorant, which was definitely a wiser choice of the two!
Ancient civilizations also made hair dye from exotic plants, arsenic and even nastier things like fermented leeches and bird waste!
Using lead for hair dye aside, ancient Egyptians actually had some pretty good ideas about hair care. The desert or desert-like conditions can make hair dry and brittle. The Egyptians experienced it first-hand. This is what led to the discovery of the benefits of almond oil.
Almonds are a great source of fats so a great moisturizer. The earliest records of its use date back to Egypt (around 3000 B.C.) when almond oil was used in beauty rituals, and as hair lotion. Among other things, apple cider, milk, honey and 21 different kinds of vegetable oils were used in everyday cosmetics and for hair care.
In the southern China, e.g., women have been saving the water from rice cooking for centuries–to make shampoos! If you want a full hair of healthier, stronger hair, fermented rice water allegedly works wonders! It did for the Chinese women as seen here!
One of the recipes for hair strength that lasted for millenniums is as simple as it is weird – applying egg yolks to your scalp. Historical records from the Victorian times list eggs as ingredients for cosmetics. Egg yolk is also a great source of Vitamin A that adds to the vitality of one’s hair.
Conditioners were also very important back then, the same they are today. The inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, e.g., have been using coconut oil for hair for thousands of years. Coconut is now a popular ingredient in modern day conditioners but isn’t it amazing that before we knew that the earth isn’t flat, we knew that coconut improves hair health and shine!
While some of the hair methods above are still used as ways to improve hair health, the early innovations have us thankful for the creativity of our ancestors. If you know an ancient hair care tip that we might’ve missed – feel free to share it with us!