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.
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.