Shampoo History
home grooming

Shampoo History

The name synonymous with shampoo for half a century was F.W. Fitch, who was known as the "Shampoo King". 

Barber Shop History and Antiques, Christian R. Jones
reckons the golden age of barbering as stretching from 1880 to 1940.  That period also corresponds to the rise in the barber shop shampoo.  The word shampoo comes from the Hindu word, chhampo, and means to press or knead, or massage.  Early shampoos were usually in bar form and were known as shampoo soaps, shampoo here meaning "massage".

As the name "Gillette" would revolutionize the history of shaving, so would the name "Fitch"  revolutionize the barber shop shampoo. His first product, however, was not Fitch shampoo, but Ideal hair tonic.

     A biography of Fitch, The Shampoo King, tells how he suffered from a scalp condition, and read medical books while attempting to cure it. From these books, he discovered that dandruff was a natural condition, but that many soaps sold as dandruff remedies only made it worse. The key thing was to dissolve the dandruff and then remove it. After fervent experimentation, he developed his dandruff remover hair tonic.

    Hair tonics in the late 1800s were considered patent medicines, and makers were not required to list the ingredients.  Before this time, barbers had ornate bottles and flasks, usually decorated with intricate designs,  called barber bottles, which held their own tonic and shampoo preparations, mystery potions which varied shop to shop and proved lucrative for the barber.  Fitch tried unsuccessfully to convince barbers to use Ideal tonic instead. He got a boost in 1906, when wood alchohol was banned as an ingredient in tonics and cosmetics. This turned out to be a major ingredient in most other available tonics, and now not only barbers but also druggists wanted to carry Fitch's Ideal Dandruff Remover.

    The usual treatment was to apply the tonic, and then wash the head with Fitch's shampoo soap bar. Fitch realized he needed to somehow combine the two products into one, and thus was born Fitch Dandruff Remover Shampoo.  The formula wasn't the modern "lather, rinse, repeat", however, but  "one rubbing, one lathering, one rinsing". One rubbed in the shampoo first, then added water to lather it up, then rinsed forward in the sink (see the  chart below). Fitch shampoo sponsored the Fitch Bandwagon radio, and later TV show, and was sold and used in barber and beauty shops. As one beautician recalled, her phrase for when things were going well was, "now we're shampooing with Fitch".

    The history of shampoo is closely related to the history of hair tonic, the two staples of the barber shop. Both came in long neck barber bottles and were sprinkled out directly onto the head. Both were applied with a massage, what barber books called "scalp manipulations". The bottles were glass, with a small hole to shake the contents out through. One Fitch ad boasts that Fitch had developed a glass bottle with the smallest shaker hole. Later,  the bottles had a plastic stopper with a hole, which were also used when plastic barber bottles were developed.

    Standard operating procedure was to apply the tonic daily and visit the barber twice a month for a haircut and shampoo. Later guys started washing their heads at home on the off weeks. Shampoos became a shop standard in the 'twenties, due to the installation of sinks and plumbing, with shampoo "stop cocks" and sprayers in the faucets. Modern shops were leaders in up to date plumbing and electrical fixtures, far ahead of most of the country. Thus, barber supply stores advertised bathtubs and associated accoutrements up until the 1920s, by which time they had become plentiful nationwide.

    The 'twenties also saw an increase in santiation in shops following the "terminal system", named for  a pioneering shop style installed in railway terminals.  Fitch created a shaving cream dispenser in an attempt to eliminate the common shaving brush and mug, but it had design flaws  and was soon outpaced by the invention of  motorized latherizers.  Vitalis hair tonic,  sold in stores and shops  in glass bottles, was applied in barber shops in individual, "sanitary seal-tube single applications". Once the small tube was opened, the entire amount was applied to the customer, and the tube discarded. At one point Fitch hit on a genius idea by which barbers would sell a customer a bottle of Fitch shampoo, put his name on it, and keep it for him at the shop. The customer received a discount on each wash,  and the shampoo used came from his own, sanitary bottle.

    Barber shops revived in the postwar climate when G.I.s, used to short Army haircuts, came home after WW II. The Fitch company, however, was in decline, and was sold in 1949. After that time, Fitch was acquired by Bristol- Myers, which had also acquired Vitalis. Proctor and Gamble brought out the first of the "soft" home shampoos, Drene, and supported it with extensive ad campaigns. Although it was marketed primarily as a woman's product, the introduction of home shampoos began to shift the focus from the barber shop for men's shampoos as well. Shulton brought out Old Spice shampoo for men, originally part of the Old Spice line, but which took off on its own, and which was advertised extensively to teens between hit parade radio hits.

    Ads still recommended a weekly shampoo, and since barber visits were generally twice monthly, this still made the shop shampoo central, leaving only two home scrubs per month. Two things changed this. One was the upgrading of schools and gyms to include pole showers and sanitary shower and locker rooms. The other was the improvement in plastic bottles. The first advance meant that the shampoo and the shower became more and more combined, and the second made it possible. The first plastics, in the 'twenties, were bakelite, which was hard and shattered if dropped, hardly an improvement on glass bottles. In the 'fifties, however, an Old Spice Shampoo ad could reflect both these developments. The text read: "in unbreakable plastic-- safe for use in shower".

    Improvements in travel meant that more and more people joined the jet set. Glass bottles didn't travel well. The blurb for Old Spice Hair Groom Tonic read "unbreakable plastic squeeze bottle-- travels light". Breck targeted a variation of its shampoo, long a favorite of beauticians, at male travelers, in a tube version which ads claimed "won't shampoo your luggage".

    After the general decline in barber shops which came with the advent of longer hair for men, Brylcreem, in the mid- eighties attempted to shift to this new market. The shift was unsuccessful, and few remember the company's "dry grooming" products today. One product in the early '70s,  however, was to change everything: Brylcreem Once a Day Shampoo. The idea was too crazy then to catch on, but the name said it all. The old, "hard" shampoos like Fitch, were made to clean the hair and scalp, remove dandruff, and wash out a week of hair groom. A barber's favorite was Wildroot Taroleum, a mixture of crude oil, pine tar, and soap, referred to in slang as  "crude oil". In the 'fifties, Wildroot replaced it with  a new soft shampoo, Robin Hood Shampoo, named to tie in with the popular films and TV serials.  However, the "softer" shampoos were mild enough to use every day, and overwashing wasn't a problem, since all men's products ads sandwiched the shampoo between generous helpings of tonic or hair cream for daily grooming.

    Bristol- Myers kept the Fitch name, but refashioned it as a "soft" shampoo, albeit one still used and sold in barber shops, as well as over the counter. In the 'sixties, Fitch shampoo still came in a glass bottle, as did it's twin, Rose Hair Dressing, with a masculine symbol on it, and was sold in drug stores as "the man's shampoo". Meanwhile, Lester Sandahl, who had worked for Fitch, relabeled virtually the same products for the Sandahl's line, which remains a barber shop favorite to this day. Although some ingredients were changed over the years, he worked from the basic Fitch formulas. Instead of Fitch Ideal Hair Tonic, the barber bottles now held Sandahl Perfect Hair Tonic, and in place of Fitch Dandruff Remover Shampoo, Sandahl Dandruff Remover Shampoo.

    These brief highlights from the long, intriguing history of  the Fitch company and its colorful, pioneering founder, are taken from The Shampoo King, by Denny Rehder, sometimes available used or through eBay

Fitch shampoo ad
Fitch barber shop


barber demonstrates incline shampoo

Above: The proper way to wash short hair: Always use a very soft face, nail, or hair brush to avoid abraiding (scratching) the scalp. (Medium and hard hair brushes are designed for brushing longer hair, not for washing the scalp).

Fitch shampoo

shampoo ad

Fitch Shampoo Barber
Fitch ad

Fitch for men

Comic Section grooming ad
Comic Section grooming ad

Fitch ad

fitch shampoo

Prell Shampoo

Above left: Embossed card from a barber shop reads: "P.S. The barbers in this shop are dandruff removal experts. They are specially trained in the correct method for applying Fitch's Dandruff Remover Shampoo and Ideal Hair Tonic".

Above Right top: Italian ad for Clear shampoo.

Above Right bottom: early ad for Prell shampoo.
Right: Moe gets in a lather in "Hairbrain Barbers".

vintage shampoo

shampoo time

men's shampoo
Fitch Shampoo.

Above left to right: glass barber bottles of Fitch's Dandruff Remover Shampoo; Wildroot Robin Hood Shampoo; Fitch: The Man's Shampoo as it looked when owned by Bristol- Myers.

Below left: The most famous of all barber shop promotions was this set of three empty, glass stand bottles with shaker tops, sent free to barbers from LanLay hair groom. The shampoo and water bottles were also sent out without the lotion bottle, in cases labelled "Shampoo Stand Bottles".

Above right: The once ubiquitous shampoo stool was used in one of two ways. The patron's head could be lathered and massaged in the barber chair, then the patron transferred to the shampoo stool, situated in front of the sink. The patron would lean forward over the sink for rinsing. The head was then often relathered at the sink.

The second method took place entirely at the sink, with the patron seated on the shampoo stool. Forward rinsing in the sink was called an "incline" shampoo, and was popular when barbers shared sinks in a shop. This is the best method for washing short hair, as it removes the short, shaved and cut hair from the neck.

The alternate method, the "recline" shampoo, gained in popularity as salons took over shops. Salons often have separate shampoo stations, with shampoo bowls, as the sinks are called, and reclining chairs. This method became popular with the advent of long hair, but the incline method is superior for neck tapers, crew cuts, and other short hair cuts.

1925 Saturday Evening Post

1925 shampoo

Above: This ad from a 1925 Saturday Evening Post urged men to have a weekly shampoo. In the '70s, Brylcreem Once a Day Shampoo would convince them to have one daily.

Below: This transparent decal graced the doors of numerous barber shops. Numbers were included which could be cut and inserted to indicate shop hours. The masculine symbol was used on Fitch bottles after Bristol-Myers bought the company.

Fitch Shampoo Decal

Fitch shampoo
Fitch Shampoo
Fitch ad

Fitch ad

Fitch shampoo

man's shampoo

Hairbrain Barbers

Stephan's Shampoo

Military barbershop

barbershop shampoo

Above: This chart appeared in Fitch's magazine for barbers, The Square Deal. The magazine, which some considered an advertisement for Fitch products, was dedicated to raising the barbering profession. Barbers could get extra copies of this chart. The eight steps read as follows:
1. Do not wet the hair. Apply Fitch’s shampoo to the dry hair and scalp, using sufficient to staurate the entire surface. Do not apply a hot towel before giving the shampoo.

2. Rub briskly until a thin film forms and disappears, leaving the hair sticky and gummy. The dirtier the hair, the heavier this first foam will be.

3.  Using a water bottle, apply lukewarm water to the sticky and gummy hair. Do not use a hot towel at theis stage or any other stage in giving a Fitch shampoo.

4.  As soon as water is applied, a rich, heavy lather forms. Add more water gradually and keep rubbing vigorously.

5.  Remove lather by the handful as fast as it is formed. Color of lather will gradually lighten, indicating that thorough cleansing is taking place.

6.  When the addition of water will not form any more lather, take your customer to the wash bowl and start the rinse. Use a heavy spray of lukewar water and rinse thoroughly.

7.  After the shampoo, dry the hair, and complete the Fitch Scientific Scalp Treatment by using the particular Fitch tonic required by the condition of the hair and scalp. Only a Fitch tonic should be used after a Fitch shampoo.

8.  After the correct application of a Fitch shampoo, followed by the proper Fitch tonic, your customer feels better. His hair and scalp are absolutely free from every particle of dandruff and foreign matter.

After the Shampoo:

Complete the Fitch Scientific Scalp Treatment by using the Fitch tonic required by the condition of the hair and scalp.
    For dry, sore or blotchy scalps, use Fitch’s Ideal for its soothing and tonic effect.
    For oily hair, use Fitch’s Quinine to close the pores and slow up the action of the oil glands.
For gray hair, use Fiitch’s Tonique Superb to remove the yellowness and streakedness, and to impart a pearly whiteness.
    For unruly hair, use Fitch’s Lov-Lay which trains the hair to stay in place and does not clog the pores.

barber ad for shampoo

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