Hair has always been a show of status, especially in the time of aristocracy.  It was namely the Victorian Era, which marked the reign of Queen Victoria from 1937 to 1901, that claimed hair was a person’s “crowning glory”. 

Who opened the first hair salon?

During that time, the world’s economy was expanding and the role of women grew. In the beginning, women were expected to follow the pursuit of finding a man to marry. But as the 20th century grew near, many women were leaving the house more and working in factories and becoming entrepreneurs, like Martha Matilda Harper.

The first hair salon was opened in 1888 by Harper, who had moved from Canada to Rochester, NY. She grew up a servant and later worked for a physician who studied hair health and shared his recipe for hair tonic. Armed with the recipe and some money she saved up, she traveled south into the States and started The Harper Hair Parlor.

She later opened up many locations by employing other working-class females to learn her Harper Method through training programs. She was one of the first to franchise her business, many years prior to McDonald’s.

What was it like to visit the first hair salon?

In the Victorian Era, it was still normal for the upper-class women to have their servants tend to their hair and when they did use a hairdresser, they made house calls. Harper’s salon gave women the opportunity to leave the house and participate in a type of sisterhood only found at women-only salons. Men’s barbershops were much of the same.

Harper’s Method focused primarily on two things: customer-centric service and all-natural products. At home, women would only clean their hair weekly or monthly using Castile soap or ammonia. The soap would strip the natural oils from the hair and scalp and cause dandruff while the ammonia would sting their noses and burn their scalp.

The term shampoo became associated with washing hair in the late 1800s, but prior to this, the word shampoo meant to wash the head and body with soap. The hair washing stations that we have in our modern salons were invented by Matilda Harper, however, she never filed a patent on it. The headrest and reclined chair over the sink helped redefine the word shampoo.

How did women care for their hair?

Many women followed the social rule of brushing one’s hair 100 times a day. It’ spread the natural oils from the scalp and cleaned the hair without washing. Women didn’t bathe often nor did they get fully naked, either. They rarely soaked in a bath so washcloths with water and vinegar did the trick.

But hair hygiene became more and more popular. Women had long hair that was rarely cut and often touched the floor. But it was always pinned up. Once a female reached the age of sexual maturity, she would no longer leave her hair down—only for intimate moments with her husband. So the hairstyles were aimed towards a natural look, but always in an up-do, much like the elegant and classy bridal hair styles of today.

What hairstyles were popular back then?

At the beginning of the Victorian Era, hairstyles were simple: clean and shiny hair with a middle part and a braided or twisted updo. Women looked to Queen Victoria for inspiration so they were to be clean, pristine, and elegant.

In the 1850s, many women pinned their hair in a low bun on the back of their heads but left curls to hang on the side of the face. These were called chignons and were like a waterfall of curls. Or they had loops of hair hanging along the side of their heads.

By the 1880s there were new hairstyles that called for volume. It’s said that women would wear their hair “big” on the sides to match their waist size. Using clumps of hair leftover from their combs, they would place “ratts” of this hair underneath to create plump. Pompadours also became popular with the help of these hair tuffs.

The end of the 1800s gave way to the Gibson Girl hairstyle created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. The hair was loosely piled on top of the head into a big bun.

What tools were used?

A Victorian Era woman’s vanity would hold a comb, a Mason Pearson style brush, and a hand mirror. Extra hair was collected in a hair receiver, a box designated for the strands caught in the brushes.

In 1890, the first curling iron was credited to a Frenchman named Marcel Grateau. The metal rod would be held over a flame or burning alcohol to gain heat before the hair was wrapped around. This led to the Marcel wave, a crimped style of hair named after the creator that stayed popular for many decades after.

Ultimately, hygiene was held of most importance. If you looked clean, if your hair was shiny, if it was held tight in an updo, you were as beautiful as the queen herself.