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Sitting in the hairdresser’s recently, admiring a yummy mummy bedecked in foils like a silver hedgehog while having her hair colours done, I was reminded how little things have changed since Jane Austen’s day.

Here is Jane, writing to Cassandra in December 1798 about what a chore keeping one’s hair presentable could be:

‘I have made myself two or three caps to wear of evenings since I came home, and they save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing, which at present gives me no trouble beyond washing and brushing, for my long hair is always plaited up out of sight, and my short hair curls up well enough to want not papering. I have had it cut lately by Mr Butler.’ 

Without hair dryers, the washing of hair would have been a bore, especially in winter. Water for the process was something that, for Jane, probably came from a well, either in the house itself, or close by. With water having to be fetched in heavy iron-bound wooden buckets, and an imperial gallon weighing in the region of ten pounds, this was a laborious process, especially if there were no menservants available.

Jane would have owned curling tongs for her hair, in the way that we have hair straighteners, electric wands, or ceramic rotating irons today. It was customary to use curling papers, and then allow the hair to dry naturally, or to speed the process with an iron, heated by the fire. The latter method needed a steady hand and careful timing to avoid singeing the hair to an unsightly frizzle. One can imagine the fuss that would be created in a house full of fashion-conscious daughters on the day of a ball – Lydia Bennett would have been particularly impatient to be first in any queue.

No wonder the wearing of neat white caps was so popular for everyday – and we now know that under that cap of hers, Jane wore long plaits of hair, set off by the kiss curls around her face created by ‘Mr Butler’.

This fascinating snippet came from my researches in Roy and Lesley Adkins’s invaluable book: Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England – who were also responsible for my piece on Jane Austen’s Embarrassing Aunt (with her penchant for shoplifting) on this blog on 10 May 2016.

Research is such an enjoyable displacement activity!