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People Used to Wear Dunce Caps to Shower

“Extinguisher caps” were nineteenth-century shower caps

(Steve Hix/Somos Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

They’re not exactly glamorous, but shower caps are at the heart of many beauty routines, protecting hair from moisture and allowing users to get clean without needing to redo their hair. But shower caps weren’t always mushroom-shaped and made of plastic. In fact, reports Two Nerdy History Girls’ Loretta Chase, in the early 19th century they looked more like dunce caps instead.

Chase reports that shower baths were a major development at a time when daily bathing was still a relatively new concept. But though authorities began to look on daily bathing favorably, Chase writes, they couldn’t agree on whether hair-washing was healthy or dangerous.

Enter the “extinguisher cap,” a pointy oilcloth hat worn by Regency-era shower users. As explained by Jane Austen’s World’s Vic Sanborn, the caps were designed to protect hair while shielding their users from the newfangled sensation of water falling on their heads from above.

The term “extinguisher cap” apparently derives from its similarity to pointy candle snuffers/extinguishers, and the hats were used in books like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to indicate a supernatural or witch-like character. Perhaps their appearance reflects contemporary attitudes towards “shower-baths,” as they were called. In 1851, writes Bill Laws, Punch correspondent John Leech wrote about his experience with a medical “power shower," which he called “menacing” and capable of knocking him “clean over like a ninepin.”

It’s not clear when the extinguisher cap was, well, extinguished, but a patent search shows that by the 1880s, rubber “bathing caps” were coming into vogue. 

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