How an Indian immigrant introduced shampoo to Britain

Very recently, I read an article in a magazine praising the virtues of not washing one’s hair. It turns out there exists a whole movement devoted to rejecting the norm of using shampoo: the NO-POO movement. Shampoo is unnecessary they say. It is merely a societal norm - a harmful one in fact - as it causes shampoo to become a necessity to make up for the excess oils produced as a result of the loss of oils due to the previous shampooing.

People generally tend to dismiss this kind of thinking. One of my friends even remarked that it was ‘degenerate, hippie bollocks,’ when I told him I’d decided to try out NO-POO. But I dismissed his criticisms and actually tried it out: - a couple of days in and my hair was feeling fresh. A few days later however and I could put up with it no longer. I immediately shampooed my hair thoroughly. Perhaps it was ‘degenerate, hippie bollocks,’ after all.

This all made me consider what it was like for those before us when bathing was far less common and even soap was non-existent, let alone shampoo. It is claimed that in Europe during medieval times, people used to bathe only twice in their lives: the first time at birth, and second time at marriage.

But things were different elsewhere. For those in warmer climates, it was much more of a necessity to wash. In India for example, since ancient times people mixed different herbs and oils together to create a kind of proto-shampoo. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, made references to using soapberry trees and hibiscus to use for hair and body cleansing. But how has all this led to our modern trend of shampooing?

Research led me to one of the first ever texts on shampoo, named Shampooing; or Benefits resulting from the use of Indian medicated vapour bath. The book is vaguely medical, containing descriptions of shampoo treatments alongside statements by patients who had benefited from them. The book was written by the man who introduced shampoo to Britain: Sheikh Dean Mahomed.

Born in India in 1759, Mahomed was employed by The East India Company. Moving to Ireland in 1784 to learn English ‘properly’, he fell in love with Jane Daly and around that time, wrote The Travels of Dean Mahomet, becoming the first Indian to write and publish a book in English. In 1810 Mahomed moved to London and set up the Hindostanee Coffee House: Britain’s first every curry-house which sold ‘hookah with real tobacco, and Indian dishes… to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England.’

Four years later, he’d ran out of the money needed to keep the business afloat, but out of this failure, the ever-resilient Mahomed came up with a new idea: Mahomed’s Baths. He set up shop in Brighton, using Indian herbs and oils to perform excellent massages. The special head massages provided there came to be known as shampoo; the anglicised form of the Hindi word chaampo, which itself is derived from the Sanskrit word chapati meaning ‘to press or soothe.’

This new form of spa treatment was cherished by his British clientele. Word soon spread: the business grew large, hospitals referred patients to him and in 1822 King George IV appointed Mahomed as his very own ‘shampooing surgeon.’ This led to his popular name: the ‘Shampooer of Kings.’

That same year he released his book, and cleverly used it as a marketing tool. In the local paper Mahomed describes his treatment as thus “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when everything fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame legs, aches and pains in the joints".

These treatments however were restricted to the upper classes, who had the money to be able to afford spa treatments. The prices at Mahomed's Baths were high, and rose even further as he gained fame. Soon though, many other spa centres emerged, and influenced by Mahomed, began to offer similar treatments. The shampoo trend began to spread. Local companies began to produce products for the cleansing of the body and hair: lotions, gels and shampoos, and in the early 20th century, with the advent of advertising, these products began to gain worldwide prominence. Now not they are no longer a luxury, but very much a necessity.

Mahomed passed away in 1951, at the grand old age of 91, having left behind a fairly formidable legacy: a portrait in Brighton Museum, a Google Doodle in January 2019 and a world full of people who shampoo their hair fairly regularly - apart from those members of the NO-POO movement of course.

These days, despite all the tributes mentioned above, Mahomed is little known. But remember that, as you shampoo and afterwards revel in the luxury of clean hair: you have one man to thank: Dean Sheikh Mahomed.

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