Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the first in a series of “Colonial Grossology” posts that we’re offering on Lives & Legacies.

Archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have recovered a variety of hair care artifacts, including over 200 wig hair curlers.  These baked clay curlers were used exclusively to curl wig hair, and formed part of the Washington family’s regimen of wig maintenance.  The regimen included several practices that might seem strange or gross to us today.

Artifacts from Ferry Farm related to eighteenth-century hair care.  A) A woman’s bone hair brush, used on natural (not wig) hair.  B) An earthenware wig hair curler, made c. 1740-1780.  C)  A bone grooming or “lice” comb.  D)  A bone razor guard, used by men to shave their facial hair and to shave the head to accommodate a tight-fitting peruke.

Artifacts from Ferry Farm related to eighteenth-century hair care. A) A woman’s bone hair brush, used on natural (not wig) hair. B) An earthenware wig hair curler, made c. 1740-1780. C) A bone grooming or “lice” comb. D) A bone razor guard, used by men to shave their facial hair and to shave the head to accommodate a tight-fitting wig.

Powdered wigs, or ‘perukes’, were highly fashionable among gentlemen of the 1700s, and a few affluent households even insisted that their butlers and coachmen wear them.  Some gentlemen, including George Washington, opted not to wear a peruke.  To remain fashionable these men often styled their own hair to resemble a wig.

George Washington, 1796, by Gilbert Stuart [Public Domain].  His hair was pomaded and powdered by his personal valet.

George Washington, 1796, by Gilbert Stuart [Public Domain]. His own hair, not a wig, was pomaded and powdered by his personal valet to look as if he were wearing a wig.

Human hair was often used to make these wigs, but horsehair, cow, goat, yak, and sheep hair provided economical options for consumers on a budget.  Owners of perukes made from human hair were often anxious about their quality:  it was a widespread concern that the hair of criminals, cadavers, prostitutes, or even plague victims was used to construct wigs.

Throughout the 1700s, whether it was a person’s own hair or a peruke, pomade or pomatum was applied before wigs were powdered.  The word ‘pomade’ derives from the Latin word for apple, “pomum,” – since early recipes incorporated apples.   One recipe combined a pound of sheep suet (fat) with one pound of pig suet.  Sixteen rosewater-boiled apples were added.  Fragrance then enhanced this mixture, and might include some combination of rosewood oil, bay leaves, bergamot orange, or Macassar oil.  Such fragrances helped to lengthen the interval between hairdressing sessions and counteracted any rancid odors.

Powder was typically made from wheat flour or dried white clay.  Beanmeal or cornflour was also used.  Powder was often enhanced by fragrances, such as those of orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender.

A hairdresser or personal valet added the powder, which was freshly applied every morning, or each time a wig was donned.  The combination of lard and powder produced rigid curls and stiff hair styles.  Powder made hairstyles heavier: as much as two pounds heavier for the large periwigs popular until the 1730s[1]. A few households featured ‘powder rooms:’ a small room set aside for the application of powder.  A power bellows, a ‘carrot’[2], a swan-down puff, or comb was used to dust hair with powder.  White or grey powders were especially popular, but adventurous consumers might use black, blue, lavender, pink, red, or yellow.

A gentleman being powdered by his valet.  A cone protects the gentleman’s face during the process.  Powder was made from starch, often wheat flour, or powdered white clay.  The Toilette of the State Prosecutor’s Clerk, c. 1768 by Carle Vernet.

A gentleman being powdered by his valet. A cone protects the gentleman’s face during the process. Powder was made from starch, often wheat flour, or powdered white clay. The Toilette of the State Prosecutor’s Clerk, c. 1768 by Carle Vernet.

Hairdressers could remove wigs to apply pomade and powder in a separate space, a convenience for wig wearers that men who only wore their own hair likely envied.  Men who did wear their own hair used a hairnet to preserve their pomaded locks overnight.  Each morning[3], a valet combed out the previous day’s pomade and dirty powder, before applying fresh pomade and powder.  This process could take an hour or more.  Many hairstyles remained undisturbed for weeks.  Headscratchers were kept close at hand: they allowed people to itch their scalps without disturbing their hairstyle too dramatically.

An ivory-handled head scratcher and closeup [inset]. Personal collection. Used with permission

The beginnings of this fashion trend were inspired by disease and lice.  Most people did not wash their hair very often.  Syphilis was rampant in Europe throughout the colonial period.  Symptoms such as hair loss, scabs, and rashes could be partially hidden beneath a voluminous wig.  The prevalence of highly contagious head lice, and the difficulty in exterminating them, also encouraged the adoption of false hairpieces.  In order to insure a good fit, gentleman shaved their heads, eliminating the hairs upon which lice thrived.  While cleaning lice from one’s own hair could be time-consuming, wigs could be conveniently removed – and boiled to eliminate pests and dirt.  However, if wigs were not properly maintained, they could become a haven for a variety of pests.

To us today, the wearing of wigs covered in animal fat along with wheat flour or dried white clay may seem bizarre or disgusting or both.  Still, to the people of the time the reasons behind the practices made perfect sense.  Which of today’s perfectly sensible fashion choices might our descendants living 200 years in the future find strange or gross or both?

Laura Galke
Archaeologist, Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

 

[1] Periwigs took as many as ten heads of hair to produce.
[2] This was a carrot-shaped, wooden tube from which powder was blown onto the hair.
[3] Ideally fresh pomade and powder were freshened each morning.  Frugal gentlemen might wait a week or more.

A Curator’s Culinary Secrets

Here at Kenmore, we spent much of this week putting away all of the Christmas and Twelfth Night decorations that adorned the house throughout the holiday season. As we were carefully wrapping it all in tissue and putting it in boxes until next year, it occurred to me that our readers might be interested in a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at a “trick of the curatorial trade”. Most historic house museums use props to show things realistically in their displays. One of the most fun is what we call “faux” food, and it is shown off best during the holiday season, as food was such a big part of 18th century Christmas celebrations. We always like to put as many historical details as possible in our rooms, and we often come across references in historical documents to what was served at a particular event, or the recipe for a family’s favorite meal. Obviously, we can’t put real food in restored rooms filled with period antiques and furnishings, so we use a variety of fakes to stand in for period-correct food. Some of it we make in-house, and some of it is produced by professionals who actually specialize in making faux food for museums.

There aren’t too many faux food-makers, and there is actually quite an art to it! Many of the dishes served in the 18th century are not common in the modern day, and even some of our fruits and vegetables look quite different than they did 200 years ago. The artists who produce faux food have to do the research to find out what a requested food was made out of, how it was prepared, and what it might have looked like in its final form. Then they have to make a fake version of it using materials that won’t harm historic objects that it might come in contact with.

For our holiday display this year, we decided to show our newly refurnished Dining Room as though a Twelfth Night feast had just concluded. It was the first time we would be showing an actual dinner on the dining table, and therefore we needed quite a bit of faux food. Our display included a boiled beef (with slices!), roasted beets, string beans, and broccoli (all professionally made, and loaned to us by our friends at Stratford Hall).  We added our own roasted acorn squash, collard greens with bacon, and roasted game birds on spits from our small but growing collection of professionally made faux food. These items are all made from molded clay that is fired in a kiln and then hand painted. Resin is added on some of them to give the appearance of liquid sauces.

The collard greens, however, are what is called a “lid” in the faux food world. From the top, it looks like a mound of food, but it’s actually just a round disk, that sets into a bowl. A similar trick is used for what looks like liquid in our punch bowl on display in the Drawing Room. From the top, it looks like a bowl of punch, with an orange slice and some cloves floating in it. It’s actually a thin disk made of resin that sits near the surface of the punch bowl. It’s pretty convincing from a couple steps away!

Faux Food - Punch Bowl

As you might imagine, professionally made faux food can get a little expensive, especially when trying to show large quantities, as we do on our 18th century dessert table display in the Passage. In those cases, we have to rely on our ingenuity. For instance, we made our syllabub glasses appear to be filled with a frothy concoction by filling balloons with sand and adding cream tops made from modeling clay that we fired in an oven ourselves. Many years ago, past museum employees tried a similar trick, using resin “caps” that sat on top of the syllabub glass, while a cone made out of the same resin was inserted into the glass to make it look full.

Faux Food - Balloons

Back in the Dining Room, you might notice that the salt cellars sitting next to each diner’s place are not filled with actual salt, but rather with tiny silicon beads. These beads actually came from a children’s bean bag. We also use red-colored Mylar from the craft store to make it look as though there is actually red wine in the wine glasses, and in some cases that the wine has spilled onto the tablecloth.

Faux Food - Salt & Wine Spill

So there you have it, a few culinary secrets from the curatorial world!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Kenmore’s New Beginning: How the Ladies of the Kenmore Association Saved the Lewis Family Home

January and the start of the year are always a time of new beginnings.  Recently, while digging through archival material, I came upon an exciting collection of newspaper clippings and photographs that detailed the New Year’s purchase of Kenmore and the beginning of the old home’s transformation into a historic site to be enjoyed by all.

On January 1, 1925 — ninety years ago — a group of well-dressed women in hats and long fur coats assembled at Kenmore to hand over the final $1,000 payment and gain full possession of the house and land.  This meeting was the culmination of thirty-two months of persistent work and determination by the ladies of The Kenmore Association to save the historic property from destruction.

Emily White Fleming (identified in the newspaper caption by her husband Vivian Minor Fleming’s initials) makes the final payment to purchase Historic Kenmore on January 1, 1925.

This crusade began four years earlier with a brief notice in the Fredericksburg Daily Star from Mr. E. G. Heflin, the owner of the Kenmore property.  The announcement stated: “I have decided to build at once…6 or more modern up-to-date residence [sic] on Kenmore.”  Built on a section of the plantation property, these houses prompted concern among many local citizens at the thought of further loss to the historic site.

By 1922, the destruction of the old Lewis home seemed imminent.  Mr. Heflin placed an advertisement for the sale of the house itself and cut up much of the original estate into smaller building lots to be sold to developers.  If the house was sold, it might be remodel into apartments or just razed to the ground.  This escalation increased the alarm even more and some tried to raise funds to purchase Kenmore.  This attempt proved unsuccessful and the house did look to be lost.  However, salvation appeared in the form of Kate Waller Barrett and the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

In March of that year, Mrs. Barrett, Virginia Regent of the DAR, came to Fredericksburg with the purpose of organizing a new chapter in the town.  She asked Emily White Fleming to lead the proposed chapter, which would work to save Kenmore.  Mrs. Fleming was 68 years old and, though seemingly small and fragile, she, in reality, had a tenacious and determined spirit.  She accepted the position and with the help of her daughter Annie Fleming Smith, known as “Miss Annie,” began their campaign to save the old Lewis house from destruction.

The ladies approached Mr. Heflin and negotiated an agreement to the purchase the property.  The group had to make a first payment of $10,000 within four months or the deal would be off.  Furthermore, if Mr. Heflin got a satisfactory offer within those four months, he could go ahead and sell the property outright. It was a tough deal but the ladies rose to the challenge spectacularly.

Mrs. Fleming and Miss Annie began fundraising immediately.  They wrote hundreds of letters by hand, stating facts about Kenmore in simple, forceful style and then making appeals for help. Mrs. Fleming recalled, “I could write thirty-nine letters a day and Annie forty-nine. We never had a typewriter until the campaign was over.” In response to one of Mrs. Fleming’s letters, Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, maker of the Lewis machine gun and a descendant of Fielding Lewis, contributed the first $1,000. Not to be outdone, The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia gave a substantial donation of a $1,000 as well.

Donation from Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis donated the first $1,000 to the Kenmore Association.

In July 1922, the Kenmore Association launched a public fundraising drive with a host of distinguished men and women coming to Fredericksburg for the start of the campaign. Even Calvin Coolidge, then the vice president under Warren G. Harding, made a speech (see below) pleading for patriotic Americans to save this home that was so critical in the history of the country.  “It ought to be preserved for its own sake,” Coolidge demanded, “It must be preserved for the sake of patriotic America.”

Speech made by Vice President Calvin Coolidge in support of the Kenmore Association’s effort to save the historic home.

Through the efforts of this determined group of women, by the first of September 1922, they were able to pay an initial installment of $12,000 on the account.  Impressed with the Kenmore Association’s work, Mr. Heflin made his own gift of $2,000.   By New Year’s Day 1925, the hard work paid off and the ladies made the final payment and took possession of the property.  Historic Kenmore was saved!

Although the purchase of Kenmore nine decades ago certainly marked a new beginning, transforming the house into a historic site for the public to enjoy required many more years of work.  Indeed, in many ways, the work begun by Mrs. Fleming, Miss Annie, and the Kenmore Association continues even as 2015 begins.  In the new year at Kenmore, we will focus on refurnishing Fielding’s office and will soon hang portraits of Fielding Lewis, Betty Washington Lewis, and other family members in the Drawing Room.  You can follow the year’s work here on the “Lives & Legacies” blog and on “The Rooms at Kenmore” blog, which is solely dedicated to the refurnishing project, at www.kenmore.org/wordpress.  Like 1925, the year 2015 should prove to be an exciting beginning!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore”

Today – January 6 – marks the end of Christmas or, at least, it did two centuries ago.   If we lived in the days of George Washington, Betty Washington Lewis, and Fielding Lewis and moved within their social circle, we would all be preparing for the grandest celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which began on December 25.  This grand event, known as Twelfth Night, was celebrated much in the same way that many of us mark New Year’s Eve with family and friends gathered together for food, drink, sweets, music, dancing, games, and conversation.

This past weekend, Historic Kenmore hosted just such a celebration in the form of a theatrical presentation titled “Twelfth Night at Kenmore.”  Set in January 1776, as Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis end their first Christmas in their newly built home, “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” depicted an unusual seasonal celebration, as the growing American Revolution brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and members of the enslaved community.