Well, of course we still have shampoo. Liquid shampoo, the product we use today, was invented in the late 1920s, so the stuff’s been with us for around one hundred years. (Before that, we just used soap or various herbs boiled in water, or lizards.)
The name comes from India where the Hindi word chāmpo means to “knead and press the muscles”. (You can see the same etymology in the spa treatment champissage, also known as Indian head massage.)
Until relatively recently, we just had shampoo. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the hairwashing was done.
For anyone with long hair (including me), that was a nightmare. The lathering introduced knots and it was a perfect physical pain to brush your hair straight again. Luckily, you didn’t have to do this too often. Once a week was plenty. (The more you wash your hair, the oilier it becomes.) Some recommended every two weeks, others once a month. The New York Times, in 1908, recommended “a month to six weeks“.
You’d get by the rest of the week (or month) by simply brushing to remove any dirt and to spread the oil from your scalp along your hair so your head didn’t look too greasy. (I think all that brushing is the reason why people such as Ali McGraw had such long and glossy hair.)
Then, in the 1970s, a small miracle arrived: conditioner.
Well, of course there had been hair conditioners before. Perhaps the most famous is Macassar oil, made from coconut or palm oil.
Men smoothed this into their hair, then left it there, the way you do hair gels today. The oil became so wildly popular that antimacassars had to be invented.
Conscientious home-makers placed these small, washable, usually white cloths on the backs of armchairs and sofas so that the oil from people’s heads didn’t leach into the upholstery and stain it permanently. Antimacassars were certainly a feature of the furniture in my grandparents’ homes.
So there were “conditioners” but they weren’t the same as today’s conditioners.
There was a short-lived vogue for something called a “creme rinse”. That, however, paled into insignificance with the arrival of rinse-off conditioners in the 1970s.
No-one could agree on a name for this new product, at first. Even one ad for the new invention called it an “after shampoo thing“.
So why did we suddenly get conditioner? One reason is simply science. Ingredients such as silicones began to be included in hair-product formulations, making the hair smooth and easy to de-tangle.
Another reason is that we began to wash our hair more frequently — if not every day, then certainly more than the every six weeks of the early twentieth century. The arrival of indoor plumbing, the invention of shampoo, and even the innovation of hand-held hairdryers all made the hair-cleansing process far easier. As more of us washed more of the natural oils from our hair, we created the need for this new “after shampoo thing” with oils of its own: conditioner.
Hard to believe how we coped before 1970. Oh, that’s right. Lizards.