Brewing up the ‘Natural’ Look

I woke up this morning with sore hair. Maybe my mop was exercising while I was asleep or the arthritis has colonized my hair follicles, but it had better snap out of it. It (the mop) has an appointment today for a cut and foil.

Before you ask, yes my hair is my ‘natural color.’ It just needs a bit of ‘lifting’ to be as natural as it was when I was eight. Thanks to crème bleach in the hands of a genius named Kim, my hair is going to look eight years old until it’s laid across the pillow in my coffin.

Regency grays are still just—gray

But what about our sisters of earlier days? Is it true that all those well-bred ladies in our favorite Jane Austen books and BBC miniseries were perfectly happy with mousy or gray hair? That’s what ‘they’ say.

I say, piffle. Women were just as interested in maintaining or improving their looks in the Regency and Victorian ages, as they are now.

Since dyed hair is an important element of ‘When in Rome,’ my humorous romantic suspense set in Regency Rome, I have delved into the history of hair dye and dyed hair.

Working hard to look ‘natural’

In the Regency period, Austen’s contemporaries affected a natural look, as a reaction against the powdered and painted look of their parents. (Think George III in one of those curled white horsehair wigs. Or modern English barristers’ wigs, on steroids.)

Unfortunately, then as now, the ‘natural look’ actually took a lot of work. Particularly as you grew older. The traditional dyes: walnut stain, chamomile flowers, berries, black tea and coffee,¹ often left ferocious tell-tale stains on the scalp and skin. Or they just did not have much effect.

Golden blonde hair was popular. In an effort to bleach darker shades to blond, women applied lemon, herb washes or even lye and caustic soda to their hair then sat in strong sunlight wearing large hats cut out to expose the hair.²

Blonde’s opposite, deepest brunette, was also admired. And it was useful in covering graying. A fortuitous sidelight of the development of photography in the 1820s and 30s was the use of silver salts—potassium nitrite—to darken hair as well as photographic plates. Unfortunately the over application of silver salts could turn the hair purple.³

(In a sidelight, the cosmetics brand we know today as L’Oreal was founded in France in 1909 as ‘Aureole, The French Harmless Hair Colouring Company’ to provide reliable dying alternatives to silver salts and their resultant purple.)4

Not Too Prudish to Dye

We think of the Victorians as rigid and puritanical. They may have been so ‘refained’ they called piano legs ‘limbs’ and swathed them in concealing fabric, but they were not too refined to dye their hair as their racy Regency parents did. That old warhorse Hydrogen Peroxide came into use in the 1860s and remained a widely used bleaching solution well into the 1930s.5

Barbara Onslow’s Victorian Page offers these extracts from Victorian sources:

In 1873, The Young Ladies Journal provided the recipe for ‘Pollie’s Own,’ to lighten hair. ‘Washing your hair with soda will make it lighter; but it is injurious to the skin of the head and causes the hair to break. Rosemary is very beneficial and is used as a wash.’6

An 1895 edition of Home Notes provided this mixture to produce brown hair:7

Flowers of sulphur ……………. ½ ounce

Glycerine ………………………… 1 ounce

Rectified spirits of wine ………. ½ ounce

Rosewater, to …………………..  8 ounces





3: ibid

4: ibid



7: ibid

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