“I’d Like to Kiss You, But I Just Washed My Hair.”

Bette Davis in "Cabin in the Cotton."

Bette Davis in “Cabin in the Cotton.”

The Bette Davis movie, Cabin in the Cotton,  is long forgotten, but this famous line lives on,  puzzling though it may be for those of you who can’t remember a time when we didn’t enjoy the convenience of hand-held electric hair dryers.

In the dim past before the 1950s, “Sorry, I can’t; I just washed my hair” was a common and convenient excuse that enabled us to turn down an unwelcome last-minute invitation.

You see, washing your hair then was a very big deal. Well, actually it was the drying that was the big deal. On a warm summer day you could sit in the back yard and let the sun do its work. In the winter you could toss your locks before the hot air register if you happened to have a forced hot air furnace. And those of us not blessed with curly hair had to “set it” in pin curls. Certainly no one washed her hair every day.

So the line is really very funny. Bette Davis said that of all the lines she spoke in the movies, this was her favorite.

But think what hair washing must have meant for women in the 19th century before running water, much less hot water, was available, and when all women had long hair.

Julia Tredwell in a studio portrait probably taken to commemorate her performance in a tableau or parlor theatrical in which she portrayed the Biblical Ruth. Usually she wore her hair in braids that wound round. . .and round the back of her head.

Julia Tredwell in a studio portrait probably taken to commemorate her performance in a tableau or parlor theatrical in which she portrayed the Biblical Ruth. Usually she wore her hair in braids that wound round. . .and round the back of her head.

Now I’ll admit that not all women had hair as long as Julia Tredwell, but still. . .

The following is from An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65

Hair care relied heavily on the hairbrush. Lola Montez, author of a widely read 1858 advice book and herself a great beauty, recommended ten minutes brushing two,three, or even four times a day. Washing long hair was a major undertaking, particularly before the availability of running water. However, it was generally felt that it was not so much the hair that needed frequent washing as the scalp, which may have made the job somewhat easier, even if it did not make the hair cleaner. Alcohol-based hair washes were sometimes relied upon to remove the perfumed pomades or hair oils that were then popular. Godey’s Lady’s Book offered a recipe for one such pomade, which was said to ward off gray hair. It consisted of four ounces of hog’s lard, four drams of spermaceti (the oil from the sperm whale), and four drams of bismuth (an alkaline metallic powder) to which perfume could be added if desired.

 

9 Comments

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9 responses to ““I’d Like to Kiss You, But I Just Washed My Hair.”

  1. david livingston

    My sister and I guess some of her friends, found out in the 40′s , if your family owned an ELECTROLUX vacuum cleaner ,( the type that looked like a little torpedo on runners)you could reverse the operation and attach the hose to the opposite end and it became a hair dryer. It’s possible that this was what triggered the invention of the actual apparatus. No report of how many bald women were caused by failure to recognize which end of the vacuum you were attached to.

  2. kay seward

    I recall collecting rain water, which my mother, who grew up on a farm in N.J without indoor plumbing, told my 2 sisters and me that it would give your hair shine, etc. It was for the final rinse. We always towel dried our hair or just let it dry itself in due time as Mom always said hair dryers were not good for one’s hair. (I still don’t use them.)

    • Now that you mention it, I remember this business about rain water. I think that my grandmother used the cistern water to wash hair, even though she had indoor plumbing. And for the final rinse–vinegar! It also was supposed to make your hair shine. Never mind you smelled like a pickle.

  3. Sarah

    The fashion of the long, big hair is so interesting. It would always have been so much easier to wear hair short, like the men. It must be all wrapped up in feminine identity somehow. When you consider how very difficult it was to maintain, you realize how important it was to women. I guess it still is in some instances.
    Sarah

  4. david livingston

    It’s the Rapunzel syndrome………a way out of the locked room in the tower.

  5. Amanda

    I have heard that, “I’d kiss you but I just washed my hair” was meant to imply that one kiss and they’d be rolling on the ground. Bad for the newly wash hair I guess.

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