The Sheikh of Shampoo

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Until the late 18th Century, Westerners had a rough time washing their hair. With no specialized product for the task, bathers were forced to rely on regular old soap, which is why very few Pantene ads are set in 1750s London. Then, Sake Dean Mahomed came along and changed everything.

Mahomed was born in 1759 in the Indian state of Bihar. At the age of 11, he joined the East India Company’s army, and by the time he was 25, he’d arrived in London as one of the first colonial travelers to make the reverse commute. Once he’d settled in the West, Mahomed got busy. He published a travelogue, the first book in English by an Indian author. Later, he opened England’s first curry restaurant.

These efforts weren’t his most lasting contributions to British society, though. For centuries, Indians had been enjoying a cleansing head massage with oils called champi. When Mahomed introduced the practice to Londoners, the name became corrupted as “shampoo.” Before long, Mahomed had made a name for himself scrubbing the heads of London’s high society. And as business boomed, he drew customers from continental Europe’s classiest addresses.

Of course, a little showmanship helped. Dressed in traditional Indian garb, Mahomed wowed crowds by massaging scalps and billing the practice as a cure for everything from gout to sprains. Before long, he’d even secured a position as the “shampooing surgeon” to both King George IV and King William IV. If you’re looking for a way to cozy up to the new royal baby, maybe it’s time to invest in some shampoo and a towel.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.