Monday, August 10, 2020

I Need a Hairdresser

By Suzanne Norquist

Recently, I visited my hairdresser after months of salons being shut down. This caused me to wonder if my story characters could have visited a hairdresser in Colorado in the 1880s. What services would a salon have provided?

Newspapers from the time provide some insight.

The ad above is for a barber and hairdresser. This is a hairdresser for men. Average women managed their flowing locks at home. Magazines dispensed advice like, “shampoo once a month and brush in between washings to keep hair clean.” Ladies looked to fashion magazines for directions on creating the latest styles.

A few ads explicitly stated that women’s hair care was offered. It seemed to be an unusual occurrence.

An ad in the August 27, 1885 edition of the Pueblo Chieftain claims that “A long-felt want is supplied” when a new ladies’ hairdresser set up shop. She “neatly and promptly performs hair work of all kinds, specializing in cutting and shampooing.” It seems the offerings were limited.

For centuries, wealthy women have had someone to style their hair. But beauty salons didn’t become popularized until the twentieth century, alongside men’s barbershops. Hair styling emerged as one of the few skilled occupations that allowed women to become entrepreneurs.

Martha Matilda Harper was one of these early businesswomen. When she was seven years old, she began working as a servant. One of her employers taught her about hair care, and she developed her own hair tonic. She saved her earnings and opened a salon, promoting the idea of clients coming to the salon instead of the stylist making house calls. She even invented the first reclining shampoo chair.

French hairdressers seemed to be particularly revered. Apparently, even then, we were looking to France for our sense of fashion.

Salons offered tonics and all kinds of hair jewelry. But one must be careful with hair jewelry. The 1894 Delineator states,

“The only hair ornaments now fashionable for dressy or ordinary occasions are shell or silver or gold-mounted shell side-combs, high combs and pins, and shell fillets. Ribbon fillets, flowers, feathers and other decorations of a similar nature are no longer approved by the best taste.” 
Over time, other services like bleaching and dyeing were added to the mix.

However, women changing their hair color wasn’t common like it is today and caused some stress. An article from the April 30, 1900 edition of the Chronicle-News in Trinidad, Colorado, describes one such episode.

“It Made Him Insane

The bleached hair of the young and pretty wife of Andrew Maxwell, a farmer living near Newkirk, O.T., has driven her husband insane. Mrs. Maxwell’s hair was jet black, but she recently had it turned yellow by a hair dresser. When the young husband came home and found his wife with different colored hair, he fretted over it until he lost his mind. Mrs. Maxwell has already paid twice the sum she spent in having her hair dyed to get it back again, but to no avail. It is now a pale green.”
By 1892, other services were offered as well.

Miss Thorn Bartram offers singeing and curling. Hair was sometimes singed (burned) to repair split ends. The 1894 Delineator article suggests that clipping is less dangerous than singeing when a woman takes care of her own hair.

Curling was no less hazardous. The same Delineator article describes curling with any kind of steel tongs that have been heated over an alcohol lamp or gas jet. Paper is rubbed over the tongs to test the heat and remove impurities (like soot from the gas jet).

Another hair styling term is “switches.” These are hairpieces that are added to hair or woven in.

The following ad warns about “traveling so-called hairdressers.” Now there is a frightening thought.

The woman pictured in the ad appears to have been a victim of one of these out-of-towners. But I doubt that is the case. Her hair is probably supposed to be beautiful.

All of this makes me glad for my modern stylist. I’m not likely to be injured in the process of coloring my hair. And it won’t turn out green . . . unless that is the look I am going for.


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

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  1. Interesting post! I love this sort of insight into everyday life of other eras. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post! I'm glad it's simpler to get our hair taken care of now!!