How Many Curlers did a Harried Hairdresser Need? Let’s Do the Math!

After unearthing over 200 wig hair curlers from Washington’s Boyhood Home, we were in a position to do something that – to our knowledge – has never been done before: crossmend all those curler fragments. As a result, we can now predict the minimum number of curlers the Washington family’s harried hairdressers needed.

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Plate 1: A wig hair curler fresh from the excavation of the Washingtons’ task yard. Note the “WB” mark on its end, which we believe to be the Initials of its British manufacturer. Image courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University/Bernard Means.

If you remember our blog post from way back in January 2015, these unglazed ceramic curlers were often used by wigmakers to create the curled styles of a wig’s coiffure during the making of a new peruke (Plate 1). We’ve also learned that hair stylists employed curlers to freshen the lagging curls upon an existing wig, after a gentleman had worn it out. How often a wig needed to be re-set depended upon the standards of the gentleman, and the activities and weather that he and his stylish coiffure encountered. Because curlers had to be heated to be effective, they were only used when wigs were safely removed from the gentleman’s head.

Before our crossmending could commence, the curlers had to be washed, cataloged, and labeled. Then, all of the labeled curler fragments could be compared and evaluated for crossmending. Previous analysis revealed that the assemblage included nine different sizes (Plate 2). Most of our curlers are smaller diameter, especially sizes one and two (for shorter hair/narrow width curls). Within each size, width and even length varied: they were not manufactured in a standardized way. This was the eighteenth century, after all.

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Plate 2: Representatives of the nine different curler sizes from Ferry Farm. These nine sizes were analytically imposed. They may not necessarily represent historically defined categories.

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Plate 3: There were three varieties of maker’s marks. A few curlers had no marks.

Most curlers had one of three varieties of maker’s marks (Plate 3). However, a handful exhibited no mark at all. It was within these subcategories that the cross mending began. And the results were surprising.

You’ve probably broken a glass or plate. They usually break into many pieces. In contrast, curlers tend to break into two fragments at their weakest point: near the center of the curler (Plate 4). With a single mend you can often get a complete or near complete specimen (Plate 5).

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Plate 4: Curlers tend to break into two fragments.

One of the primary goals of crossmending was to determine whether we had found all of the curlers used here during the mid-1700s, or just a portion of them. If we had found the entire assemblage, for example, our 194 curler fragments should result in 97 crossmended curlers. That is to say, they should all mend to another fragment. An example of a crossmend is shown in Plate 5.

Archaeologists refer to this process of mending fragmented remains of a larger item together as “crossmending.” Whether glass bottles. tablewares, ceramic vessels, or even the bones of animals, this process allows us to determine the minimum number of any given item in the recovered collection. For example, if after crossmending, you have three right hind cow legs and two left hind cow legs you know that were a minimum of three cows on site. This is a dramatic oversimplification, but you get the idea. This educated guess of the least number of specimens present is called the minimum number of individuals, or MNI.

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Plate 5: A typical curler crossmend from Ferry Farm. Two fragments mend to form a complete specimen. Often, these curlers break in the middle, as shown.

After weeks of dedicated crossmendingby steadfast interns, enthusiastic volunteers, and dedicated Foundation staff, a total of fifteen whole curlers were crossmended from thirty previously disparate fragments. When added to our impressive collection of complete curlers (n=20), a total of 35 complete curlers (20 complete, excavated curlers and an additional 15 formed from 30 mended fragments) make up the Ferry Farm assemblage.

Another exciting result of this exercise was that we now had two complete (mended) size one curlers and a mended size eight curler: previously these two respective sizes were only represented by disjointed fragments. Unfortunately, no mended size nine curlers were discovered. Size nine continues to be represented by fragments, and it is the only size from Ferry Farm for which we have no complete examples.

So what’s the minimum number of curlers that the Washingtons’ hairdresser used to curl their many wigs? Let’s do the math!

There are        164 molded curler fragments with no matches
+  1 hand made curler fragment
+20 whole (unbroken) molded curlers
+15 mended molded curlers (from 30 fragments)
                          (a minimum of) 200 curlers

Another informative aspect of crossmending is seeing from what areas of the site the mended curlers were found (Figure 1). As Figure 1 shows, a clear relationship between the work yard, where the majority of curlers were discovered and the Washington House can be seen. This adds additional evidence to our hypothesis that the majority of curling tasks took place in the eastern work yard and that finishing tasks associated with wigs (powdering, drying the washed, wet wig, and final elegant touches) took place in the parlor. The parlor has emerged as an area of wig hair maintenance, since eight curlers/curler fragments were recovered from the parlor room root cellar.

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Figure 1: This bird’s-eye view of the Washington house and surrounding yard shows where ten of the crossmended fragments mend to their respective mates. A ‘path’ between the work yard – where the majority of curlers were used – and the Parlor inside the house is evident.

While wearing wigs was highly fashionable among refined British colonial gentleman, little is known about how they were maintained, how often they were cleaned and set, and how these crucial activities were performed at the household level. The data recovered from Ferry Farm is providing new information and innovative analysis of this poorly understood, but essential hairdressing routine

All in all, a terrific exercise!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

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