From Servants to Sovereigns, Lousy Hair Days (Part I)

When Mr. Gilchrist [the hairdresser] opened my aunt’s head, …its effluvias [bad odor] affected my sense of smelling disagreeably, which stench however, did not surprise me when I observed the great variety of materials employed in raising the dirty fabric. False locks to supply the great deficiency of native hair, pomatum with profusion, greasy wool to bolster up the adopted locks, and gray powder to conceal at once age and dirt, and all these caulked together by pins of an indecent length and corresponding color.  When the comb was applied to the natural hair, I observed swarms of animalculas [small insects] running about in the utmost consternation and in different directions, upon which I …asked …[Mr. Gilchrist] whether that numerous swarm did not from time to time send out colonies to other parts of the body?  He assured me that they could not; for that the quantity of powder and pomatum formed a glutinous matter which… caught and clogged [them]… and prevented their migration.  Here I observed my aunt to be in a good deal of confusion, and she told me that she would not detain me any longer from better company; for …the operations of the toilette were not a very agreeable spectacle to bystanders, but that they were an unavoidable evil; for, after all, if one did not dress a little like other people, one should be pointed at as one went along.

-August, 1768 London Magazine. Quoted in Corson Fashions in Hair: The First five Thousand Years, pp. 337-338.

You’ve probably heard of – or even used – the term “lousy” to refer to an unpleasant situation, but were you aware that it refers to the state of being infested with lice? “Louse” is the singular form of the plural “lice.” The continued popularity of terms such as “lousy” and “nitpicking” reflects the enduring legacy we’ve inherited from a long history of human lice infestations.

Louse

A louse as depicted in Hooke’s Micrographia. Credit: National Library of Wales. Public Domain.

Lice feast upon the blood from their reluctant hosts, and their rapacious bites make the scalp itch incessantly. During the colonial era, desperate hosts combated these voracious pests by cutting their hair short or shaving it off altogether!

In the 1700s, the most popular hair styles for adults combined greasy pomade with by a liberal (and frequent) application of hair powder (often wheat flour-based). The resulting impenetrable pasty blend of lard and starch provided an irresistible condiment for pests of all kinds. Hair thus embellished demanded careful maintenance. The frequency of hair care depended upon individual preference, availability of a trusted hairdresser, the presence of pests, and how the hairstyle’s veneer of pomade-and-powder responded to the weather (hot weather and rain, for example, prove devastating).

Combating pests was so stressful that many found wearing a wig (or ‘peruke’) less troublesome than maintaining one’s own hair. Wigs can be removed, cleaned, boiled, combed, and have requisite unguents applied by a hairdresser without the wearers being involved. A cleaned and dressed peruke was presented to its owner without the time and discomfort associated with having these procedures applied directly to his scalp.

Until the later decades of the 1700s, wearing wigs was essential for most fine gentlemen. Women might wear wigs if some illness caused the loss or thinning of their own hair, but wearing them as fashion accessories was frowned upon for ladies during the 17th and much of the 18th centuries. Well-heeled ladies grew their own hair long and – especially in the final decades of the 1700s – piled it ever higher upon the top of their head. Architecture was even influenced by the tall styles of both men and women, as doorways became higher or arched to accommodate soaring headdresses.

Whether part of a wig or confined to one’s own locks, prolific hair was fashionable and wool pads increased their towering heights dramatically. Purchasing separate lengths of curled hair to augment feminine hairstyles was especially popular among refined ladies. Thomas Jefferson purchased such curls for an esteemed female family member from a Williamsburg wig shop in 1770.

Laborers, however, required practical hair styles that could withstand the strenuous environmental conditions and exertions of their physical tasks. The 18th century hairstyles of dedicated workers reflected the minimal time they possessed to style and maintain their hairstyles. These people wore their own hair in easy-to-maintain styles: under most circumstances they simply couldn’t afford the time, products, or talented hairdressers required of fancy hairstyles.

The greasy pomade-and-powder enhanced styles of refined men and ladies attracted dust in addition to insects. Scalps were tickled by crawling insects, plagued by biting lice, and irritated by an accumulation of products: they itched! Men could reach under their wig for a quick scratch or, if alone, could remove their wig for a well-earned scrape. For those men and women who wore their own pomaded hair, a clumsy, direct manual scratching by hand disturbed their inflexible tresses. Head scratchers (or grattoirs), such as the one shown below, allowed people to itch their scalp while minimizing the damage done to their elaborate styles, stiffened as they are by layers of pomade and powder. The hairpins that festoon elaborate hairstyles also provided a means of relief: discretely shifting those hairpins back and forth across one’s scalp strategically satisfies itchy crowns. Of course, the lard-infused pomade attracted not only pore-clogging dust, but additional insatiable insects and even rodents.

ScratcherWithInset

This head scratcher, or ‘grattoir,’ allowed its owner to scratch their scalp without disturbing their stiff, pomade-and-powder-encrusted hairstyle. It features a wooden handle and an ivory hand (inset), a popular motif in these essential tools.

Bugs were such a fact of life that etiquette about the manner in which to deal with these pests while under the scrutiny of company was carefully considered. ‘Pest protocols’ were included in The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a conduct manual written in the late 16th century that young George Washington copied word-for-word as part of his gentlemanly education during his time at Ferry Farm. There were 110 rules, and Washington carefully numbered each one. Dealing with those ever present vermin infesting bodies was number 13 on his edition:

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks etc. in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the clothes or companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

From servants to sovereigns, blood-sucking head lice were a nuisance for all. Speaking of itchy crowns, King George III encountered a louse on his dinner plate! He blamed the kitchen staff for this uninvited dinner guest.

Is this Your Louse

“Is this Your Louse?” King George III queries a member of the kitchen staff after discovering a louse on his dinner plate. Thomas Rowlandson, 1787. Lewis Walpole Library.

The eggs of these pests, called nits, are really small. Nitpicking is tiresome. Fine-toothed combs, just like those found at Ferry Farm (see photo), enjoy millennia-long application in the battle against these parasites worldwide.  But, some cautioned that combing hair caused headaches if done too frequently! Combing once every week or two was ideal. Between fear of water, ineffective soaps, and an aversion to combing, hairstyles might go weeks or even months without being combed.

FF-Combs

These bone grooming comb fragments are from Ferry Farm. Their delicate teeth are missing because they have broken off and decayed over time.

Keeping hair short, or shaving it altogether, was an effective deterrent against these pests.  Unlike one’s own hair, wigs could be boiled and baked to ensure lice and their eggs (‘nits’) are destroyed.  However, without proper maintenance, wig hair could host just as many pests as natural hair. In 1664, Samuel Pepys was dismayed to discover that the brand new peruke he purchased was infested with nits and lice.

Hairstyle historian Maria Jedding-Gesterling claims that some desperate hirsute fashionistas tucked insect traps within their towering coiffures. Fabrics soaked in blood or honey lured hungry fleas into these pierced ivory traps. And for those people who had surrendered in the war against insects, wearing clothing that was flea colored provided a savvy strategy for hiding those intimate, tiny bedfellows. Flea-colored clothing became popular in the mid-1770s, even among the Court at Versailles.

Is your head itching? Mine is!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

For young scholars/general interest:

Fisher, Leonard Everett. 2000 [1965]. The Wigmakers. Benchmark Books, New York.

Galke, Laura. 2015. Wigs, 1715-1785. In Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, Volume 1, Pre-Colonial Times through the American Revolution, edited by Jose Blanco F., and Mary D. Doering, pp. 301-303. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.

Huey, Lois Miner. 2014. Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History. Millbrook Press, Minneapolis.

Hunt-Hurst, Patricia. Wigs, 1776-1819. In Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, Volume 2, The Federal Era through the 19th Century, edited by Jose Blanco F., and Patricia Hunt-Hurst, pp. 267-268. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.

Trasko, Mary.  1994.  Daring Do’s:  A History of Extraordinary Hair.  Flammarion, Paris.

Vincent, Susan J. 2009. The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today. Berg, New York.

 

For mature researchers:

Arnold, Janet.  1970.  Perukes and Periwigs.  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.

Bristol, Douglas Walter, Jr. Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Brown, Kathleen M. 2009. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Corson, Richard.  2012 [1965].  Fashions in Hair:  The First Five Thousand Years.  Peter Owen, London.

Cox, J. Stevens.  1965.  The Wigmaker’s Art in the 18th Century.  George S. MacManu Company.  Philadelphia.

Cruse, Jen. 2007. The Comb: Its History and Development. Robert Hale, London.

Durbin, Gail.  1984.  Wig, Hairdressing and Shaving Bygones. Shire Publications, Ltd. Aylesbury, Bucks.

Festa, Lynn.  2005.  Personal Effects:  Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century.  Eighteenth-Century Life.  29(2):47-90.

Galke, Laura. 2018. Tressed for Success: Male Hair Care and Wig Hair Curlers at George Washington’s Childhood Home. Winterthur Portfolio 52(2):1-51.

Jedding-Gesterling, Maria

1988 Regency, Rococo and Louis XVI (1715-1789).  In Hairstyles: A Cultural History of Fashions in Hair from Antiquity up to the Present Day, edited by Maria Jedding-Geserling.   Hans Schwarzkopf, Hamburg.  Pp. 119-148.

Kern, Susan. 2010. The Jeffersons at Shadwell.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Kwass, Michael.  2006.  Big Hair: A Wig history of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France.  The American Historical Review 111(3):631-659.

Moore, William. 1780. The Art of Hair-Dressing and Making it Grow Fast, Together With a Plain and Easy Method of Preserving it; With Several Useful Recipes, Etc.  Printed for the Author by J. Salmon, in Stall-Street, Bath.

Perry, Gill.  2004.  Staging Gender and “Hairy Signs:” Representing Dorothy Jordan’s Curles.  Eighteenth-Century Studies 38(1):145-163.

Pointon, Marcia.  1993.  Hanging the Head:  Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Richardson and Urquhart.  1778.  The New London Toilet: or, a Compleat Collection of the Most Simple and Useful Receipts for Preserving and Improving Beauty.  Printed for Richardson and Urquhart, London.

Sherrow, Victoria.  2006. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

Stewart, James. 1782.  Plocacosmos:  or the Whole Art of Hair Dressing; Wherein is Contained, Ample Rules for the Young Artizan.  Printed for the Author, No. 12, Old Broad-Street, London.

Warwick, Edward, Henry C. Pitz, and Alexander Wyckoff.  1965.  Early American Dress:  The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods.  Bonanza Books, New York.

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George Washington’s Troublesome Teeth

It’s probably the myth that is more enduring and widespread than any other about George Washington.  At some point from someone, you have heard that George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood.  It is not true.  In reality, his dentures and dental tribulations were more complex than the familiar myth says.  The true story, even when it is uncertain, reveals much more about his life and about life in general in the 18th century.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798)

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798). Washington’s dental troubles are even apparent on his face. As the result of his dentures, he kept his mouth closed tightly and the false teeth caused the area around his lips, his lower jaw, and his chin to protrude slightly. Credit: Clark Art Institute

George Washington had a tooth pulled for the first time in 1756 at the age of 24.  Four years later, George Mercer described Washington’s appearance in a letter, saying “His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.”   By the time of his first inauguration as president in 1789, George had only one tooth left.

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821)

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821) Credit: National Gallery of Art

The causes of George’s dental problems will never be known with certainty.  According to John Adams, Washington himself “attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth.”  Furthermore, Adams hints at one additional potential factor: the common use of mercury in medicine during the 18th century.  Adams described how his doctors gave him sizable quantities of mercury when he was inoculated for smallpox.  The result was, he said, “that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger.”  Adams complained that his doctors “rendered me incapable  …of speaking or eating in my old Age, in short they brought me into the same Situation with my Friend Washington.”

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

For what it’s worth, nineteen-year-old Washington contracted smallpox in November 1751 during a stay in Barbados.  Constantly attended by Dr. John Lanahan, he was sick for 25 days before finally fighting off the deadly disease.  We have no records to tell us precisely how Lanahan treated Washington.  If we consult pages 28-29 of A Rational and Mechanical Essay on the Small Pox published in 1735 by Dr. William Hillary, we find a three-phase course of treatment for pox sufferers. “The first, by bleeding in the first Stations of the Disease; when the Fever is violent: The second by introducing the Practice of Purging, (and Bleeding) in the most dangerous Circumstances attending the second Fever.”  The third phase was employing all known methods to reduce inflammation.  All phases were typical medical practice at the time.

The purging phase of smallpox treatment is when mercury may have become involved.  The most popular concoction to induce purging in the 18th century was called calomel.  It “was a white tasteless powder which consisted of mercury chloride. When taken in small doses calomel led to the evacuation of the bowels.  If taken over time or in heavier doses, calomel induced heavy salivation, bleeding gums, mouth sores, tooth loss.”  Again, in describing his own brush with smallpox, John Adams noted that his doctors “salivated me to such a degree” with “Milk and Mercury” that all his teeth became terribly loose.

Young Washington survived his smallpox attack but literally carried the scars of the illness for life.  Back at Ferry Farm in January 1752, Mary Washington twice purchased some ointment from Dr. Sunderland (Sutherland?) to deal with George’s pox-caused facial scars.  The same bill also included a “mercurial purging” for someone. [1]  We should not definitively conclude that medicinal mercury caused George’s life-long dental troubles.  Like most things in history, his difficulties probably had a mix of causes common to the 1700s, including diseases and  “ poorly balanced diet . . . as well as genetics.”

Regardless of the reasons for George’s defective teeth, Washington ultimately proved “very wise about the message an image can send, and knew that . . . he had to look the part of a leader… which meant at least having teeth.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Now Incomplete Set

A set of Washington’s dentures as once owned by the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, Dental School, University of Maryland. This older image shows both the lower and upper portions. Only the lower portion of these dentures is now present and on display at Baltimore’s Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry. Credit: National Museum of Dentistry

Baker's Ad in the VA Gazette

John Baker advertised his services as a Surgeon Dentist in the January 2, 1772 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

Accordingly, as he lost more teeth, George replaced them with partial dentures and then eventually full dentures.  Surgeon Dentist John Baker, who we first wrote about here, became George’s regular dentist in 1772.  Baker stayed at Mount Vernon in October 1773 and received two substantial payments of £8 total from Washington that same month.  Baker was the first to make false teeth for George, creating a partial denture of ivory for wiring to his natural teeth.

The tooth loss continued, however.  In 1783,Washington asked Baker “for some of the Plaister of Paris, or that white powder with which you take (in wax) the Model of the Mouth for your false teeth—and directions how to mix, & make use of it—When you have done this, I can then give you such a Model as will enable you to furnish me with what I want.”  It seems it was time for another new set of dentures.

A month later, though, Washington took on a new dentist: Jean-Pierre Le Mayuer, who probably made him another partial denture.  Additionally, Le Mayuer practiced the relatively common 18th century dental technique of transplanting, in his words, “good living teeth in the Room of those which were broken or otherwise decayed.”  At first, Washington seemed skeptical about the practice.  He needed to replace his teeth but “(not by transplantation, for of this I have no idea, even with young people, and sure I am it cannot succeed with old).”  Eventually, his mind seemed to be changed somewhat by Richard Varick’s testimony of Le Mayuer’s skills.  That said, there’s little recorded describing the care Le Mayuer provided Washington.

Despite George’s skepticism, Le Mayeur’s use of human teeth in his practice was not unusual for the time. A patient’s own pulled teeth might be used in their dentures.  Teeth from other people, especially the poor and enslaved, were bought and even harvested from the dead for use in dentures or transplanting.  In fact, “Wherever Dr. Le Mayuer practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads ‘Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.’  While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated ‘slaves excepted.’”  Did this mean Le Mayeur would not pay for teeth from slaves or is it a Frenchman’s corruption of the word “accepted”?  It seems, in fact, he was willing to pay for the teeth of enslaved people for, in May 1784, Lund Washington, who was managing Mount Vernon while George commanded the Continental Army, recorded just over £6 “cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.”

Washington definitely used human teeth in his dentures but we do not know if they were teeth from slaves.  He probably did use his own in some dentures.  Back in 1782, when John Baker was still his dentist, George wrote to Lund Washington instructing him that “In a drawer, in the Locker of the Desk which stands in my Study, you will find two small (fore) teeth; which I beg of you to wrap up carefully, & send inclosed in your next Letter to me. I am positive I left them there, or in the secret drawer in the locker of the same desk.”  It is believed “Washington hoped that these original teeth could be used within new dentures that were being fitted for his use.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Complete Set

Washington dentures made by John Greenwood. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

John Greenwood

Engraving of John Greenwood by Roy Peintre. Credit: Library of Congress

“The only complete set of Washington’s dentures that still survives . . . is made of animal and human teeth, lead, and ivory.”  John Greenwood, who served as Washington’s dentist throughout the 1790s, made them out of hippopotamus ivory, horse or donkey teeth, human teeth, gold wire springs, brass screws, and lead.  Greenwood left a gap in this set for the one remaining tooth Washington had left.  Inevitably, that tooth finally had to be pulled and Washington presented Greenwood with this tooth as a gift, which hung on his watch chain inside a glass locket.

 

George Washington suffered a lifetime of dental troubles.  The causes of those troubles and the attempted solutions were typical of the 18th century and teach us much about both Washington’s life and the lives of his fellow early Americans. The real story of Washington’s false teeth, even when uncertain, reveals more about his life and his times than any stale wooden myth.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 103.

“With Double Its Weight of Vermin”: Bugs in George’s Bed

Chamber (1)

The Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore

“I went in to the Bed as they call’d it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c,” wrote 15-year-old George Washington in his Journal of my journey over the mountains kept during one of his earliest surveying trips to Virginia’s frontier.

Furthermore, when young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior as a handwriting exercise in school, one rule cautioned the aspiring gentleman to “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others.”

As these two instances from Washington’s life hint, the days of early Americans teamed with insects.  “Bugs were everywhere,” writes historian A. Roger Ekirch, “especially given the proximity of dogs and livestock.”[1]

Except for maybe the lice on one’s own head and body, probably nowhere were bugs more problematic than in bedding and bed furniture.  “Bedding afforded notorious homes to lice, fleas, and bedbugs, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology,” Ekirch notes.  Bugs in bed was a significant problem indeed and “people in Britain often referred to bedtime pests in martial terms—for example, ‘troops,’ ‘detachments,’ ‘a compleat regiment,’ and ‘whole armies’”[2]

These insect armies certainly had plenty of places to hide. Beds of the 18th century were constructed of wood frames lashed together with rope.  The humblest of beds contained numerous nooks and crannies that served as home to numerous creepy crawlies. Wealthier homes were not safe from infestation.  Large canopy-style beds frequently decorated with ornate cravings greatly increased the number of hiding places for vermin. Sheets, blankets, quilts, and bed curtains added more hiding places.  Finally, the mattresses themselves were usually filled with straw or, for the more well-to-do, with feathers that bugs found to be soft and enjoyable homes.

Chamber (3)

Bed furniture, curtains, canopy, and coverings could become infested with variety of insects common to an 18th century plantation in Virginia. Housekeeping guides of the time included instructions on how to make concoctions to eliminate bugs from one’s bed.

The number of bugs in bed meant that before going to sleep, “families engaged in ‘hunts’ of furniture and bedding for both fleas (pulex irritans) and bedbugs (cimex lectularius)” while they also combed lice out of their hair and picked lice off their clothing and skin.  Ekirch recounts that “to keep gnats at bay, families in the fen country of East Anglia hung lumps of cow dung at the foot of their beds, whereas John Locke advised placing the leaves of kidney beans about a bed to avert insect bites.”[3]

The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, two popular guides to proper housekeeping in the 18th century, included recipes for concoctions aimed at killing bugs in bedding and bed furniture.  Both of these books were in Fielding Lewis’ library at Kenmore.

Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

Title page and frontispiece to Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (c. 1777).

Glasse’s recipe for “How to keep clear from Bugs” advised closing up the room tightly by hanging blankets over shut windows, doors, and across the mouth of the fireplace.  Then, one opened any closets, cupboards, drawers, and boxes. Bedding and mattresses were pulled from the bed and hung over chairs and tables around the room.  In a broad earthen pan in the center of the room, one placed a chafing-dish full of lit charcoal to which was added brimstone (sulfur) and, if available, “India pepper.” This pepper was a source of capsaicin which served as an insect repellent. The sulfur suffocated the bugs and, frankly pretty much anything else in the room. The cautions within the recipe about leaving the room quickly and about reentering the room after several hours are lengthy.  The process left an irritating residue so, before it was safe to reoccupy the room, it had to be cleaned first.

Smith’s The Compleat Housewife recipe for “destroying Bugs” essentially consisted of alcohol and pine resin.  Alcohol would kill any bugs on contact while the pine resin in the form of turpentine would act as a repellent to keep insects away.  One applied the liquid mixture to “the lacing, &c. of the bed, or the foldings of the linings or curtains near the rings, of the joints of holes in and about the bed, head-board, &c. wherein the bugs or nits nestle and breed.” The recipe advised pouring “some of it into the joinings and holes where the sponge or brush cannot reach.” This concoction was quiet unsafe as well for it also called for camphene, a high combustible mixture of alcohol and turpentine.  The Compleat Housewife warned to apply the mixture only “in the daytime, not by candle light, lest the subtilty of the mixture should catch the flame as you are using it, and occasion damage.”

Lastly, both books included one other “Effectual Way to clear your Beadstead of Bugs” specifically for use on bed furniture. This recipe called for mixing quicksilver (poisonous mercury!) with eggs and then spreading the goo throughout the cracks, crevices, and joints of the bedstead and leaving it there.

While all of these treatments would have been effective against the bugs, they were quite dangerous to humans as well.  The reprieve provided from infestation was probably relatively short-lived for the recipes all suggested repeating the process as needed.  Even with the help of Hannah Glasse or Eliza Smith, lice, fleas, and bedbugs were an ever-present and inescapable part of the 18th century life and could be found in the fine bed in Fielding and Betty Lewis’s chamber as well as in the dirty straw mat of the young surveyor George Washington.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005: 270

[2] Ekirch, 294-5

[3] Ekirch, 270.

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.