It’s hard to believe, when walking down the toiletries aisle at your local pharmacy or market, that all those colorful bottles of shampoo are a fairly recent innovation…like, 20th century recent. As I said last time, when you wanted clean hair, you lathered it up with the same soap you were using for the rest of you…which didn’t do your hair any favors. So where did our modern “shampoo”—a special soap for the washing of hair—come from?
It came initially by way of British India and a very interesting person known as Sake Dean Mahomet (in his native Bengali, Shekh Din Muhammad). Mahomet was born in 1759 and served in the Bengal Army of the British East India Company as a young man, starting out as a trainee surgeon. He came to Ireland with his former Captain, settled down to perfect his English, and married an Irish girl. His language studies went well enough for him to publish a book about India called The Travels of Dean Mahomet—it was, incidentally, the first book published in English by an Indian writer. Mahomet and his wife moved to England in 1810 and accomplished another first—he opened the first Indian takeout restaurant in England.
But before he moved into the restaurant biz Mahomet had worked with a certain Basil Cochrane who had just opened a bathhouse specializing in vapor bath cures, popular with the British in India, as a way to promote the health of London’s poorer classes. When his restaurant (the Hindoostanee Coffee House in George-street) was taken over by unscrupulous partners, forcing him out, Mahomet returned to the bathhouse idea as a way of earning a living. He moved to Brighton, the seaside town where the Prince Regent’s favorite house, the Pavilion, was located, and opened a new bathhouse which also offered vapor bath cures and other health-promoting treatments. One of these was the therapeutic massage technique called Champi (which sounds similar to what we know as massage therapy today).
Mahomet’s baths caught on like wildfire and doctors praised his Champi treatments…which eventually changed in pronunciation to “shampoo” and the treatments to massage of the shoulders, neck and scalp, especially the last. Mahomet eventually came to be called “Dr. Brighton” by the happy citizens of that town; doctors referred clients to him, and in time he was appointed “Shampooing Surgeon” to both King George IV (the former Prince Regent) and King William IV. Mahomet lived a long and prosperous life after that, and one of his grandsons became an early and important researcher in high blood pressure studies at the famous Guy’s Hospital in London.
According to etymological dictionaries, by 1860 the word “shampoo” had come to mean the act of washing one’s hair, and a few years later it also meant products used for hair washing—which generally consisted of soap boiled in soda water and mixed with fragrant herbs or oils…not much of an improvement over plain soap, really. Though chemists soon attacked the problem of finding a shampoo that didn’t turn one’s hair to straw (in 1898 that a German chemist and pharmacist made a few improvements and created a shampoo powder that became highly popular), it wasn’t until 1930 that a much less alkaline (and therefore less harsh on the hair) shampoo was introduced to the world by Dr. John Breck. 1930–just ninety-one years ago.