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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Le Pouf: Sensational Hairstyle of the 18th Century

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Wig curlers excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty interested in 18th century hairstyles, wigs, and wig-styling here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  As evidence, check out our most viewed blog post. It’s about wig styling.  Our interest stems from the hundreds of wig curlers archaeologists have excavated during digs at Ferry Farm.  While those wig curlers were used to style men’s wigs here in British North America, our research explorations into hairstyling of the 1700s sometimes range more widely.  The information we find may have no direct relevance to George Washington and his family here in Fredericksburg but it still helps us to understand the world in which they lived.  Sometimes the information is simply too fascinating not to share here on Lives & Legacies and it’s all thanks to those little wig curlers that keep popping out of the ground where George Washington’s boyhood home once stood.

One of the most sensational wig and hair styles of the 18th century – the pouf – was found among the women courtiers of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in France across the Atlantic from Ferry Farm.  The pouf was a hairstyle that became popular in the French court during the late part of the eighteenth century.  The pouf utilized everything from wire, cloth, gauze, wigs, animal hair, and the wearer’s own hair to create a voluminous coiffure that could be used as a canvas to express feelings (pouf à la sentiment) or commemorate events (pouf à la circonstance).[1]

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

The pouf’s creation has been attributed to two people: Madame Rose Bertin and hairdresser Monsieur Léonard. [2]  Bertin had a shop in Paris, close to the Palace, where she and Léonard began offering these unique headdresses to the wealthy noble women of the court including Marie Antoinette.

One of the first women of court to commission such a headdress was the Duchess of Chartres in April 1774.  The Duchess wanted to commemorate the birth of her son so she had Léonard create a unique coiffure.  It featured “fourteen yards of gauze and numerous plumes waving at the top of a tower…two waxen figures as ornaments, representing her son in his nurse’s arms.  Beside was placed a parrot pecking at a plate of cherries, and reclining at the nurse’s feet, a waxen figure of a little African boy of whom the duchess was very fond.  On different parts of the hairpieces were the initials of Duke of Chartres, of Penthievre, and of Orleans, formed with the hair of those princes – the husband, father, and father-in-law of the duchess.”[3]  The poufs popularity took off after the Duchess premiered this flamboyant bouffant and it became a must have fashion accessory for all aristocratic and wealthy ladies of France.

The Duchess of Lauzun hired Bertin to decorate her locks as bemused contemporary journalists reported with– “a stormy sea, a hunter shooting at ducks, a mill where a female mill worker was being seduced by a priest, and at the bottom, the mill-worker’s husband walking along with his donkey.” [4]

Young Marie Antoinette, France’s new queen, became the leader of all things fashionable in pouf décor.  One of her most written about headpieces was the “coiffure à l’Iphigénie” which was wound with black mourning ribbons, trimmed with a black veil, adorned with a wreath of black flowers and topped with a crescent moon.  She wore this on a night at the opera to support a friend Christoph Gluck and his Parisian debut of “Iphigénie en Aulide.”[5]

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Ever at the cutting edge not only in fashion but in medicine, she unveiled “pouf à la inoculation” to celebrate her husband’s recent small pox vaccinationThis pouf included a serpent belonging to the Greek’s god of medicine, Aesculapius, twined around an olive tree that symbolized wisdom with a great golden sun rising behind it as a nod to her husband’s grandfather Louis XIV, the much-loved Sun King.

Two other noted examples that caused a stir in the court were the Zephyr and the Coiffure a la Belle-Poule.  The Zephyr, created by Monsieur Léonard, was a moving garden of brightly colored flowers which was celebrated as a peak achievement for the hairdresser.  The Coiffure a la Belle-Poule was a nautical pouf that consisted of a ship sailing on a sea of thick wavy hair.  It was invented after the naval battle in which the frigate La Belle Poule was victorious.

A realistic view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

A fairly realistic view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

Soon these new hairdos began to make their way out of the circles of aristocracy to the streets of Paris.  However, as cutting-edge fashion makes its way out into the streets, the distinctiveness is somewhat diluted creating more audacious and ostentatious copycats.  This was quickly picked up on by social critics and became a fertile subject for mockery and satire.

One critic lampooned the imitators saying, “they did not hesitate to embrace styles more ridiculous than sublime.  Thus spotting in the Queen’s pouf a la jardinière such implausible ingredients as an artichoke, a carrot, some radishes, and a head of cabbage.” [6] Another complained, “Frivolous women covered their heads with butterflies” and “Melancholic women went so far as to put crematory urns in their headdress.”  Even the hair dresser who invented the pouf began to decry the “prodigious folly of composite and fabricated coiffures, as pictures of towns, little models of Paris, a globe or the heavens.”

A satirical view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

A satirical view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

Some complaints seemed more valid than others.  Spectators at the Paris Opera petitioned the director, to refuse any lady whose coiffure blocked the view of the rest of the audience.    While enjoying the theatre might inconvenience others, getting to the theatre brought its own set of physical dilemmas for the pouf wearer.  Try squeezing a three foot bouffant into a small covered carriage or navigating a standard doorway with the additional height.

Luckily, for those who found the pouf a public nuisance, a silly fashion fad, or just a physical pain to wear did not have to wait long for it to fall out of favor spectacularly.  The huge grandiose styles began to represent a symbol of aristocratic excess in a society on the verge of political revolution.  It embodied the nobility’s unbridled lavishness in the face of public discontent.  This willful ignorance didn’t end well for the coiffured-court ladies who soon found they no longer had anywhere to put their elaborate headdresses.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, New York: Picador, 2006: 104.

[2] Weber, 104.

[3] Weber, 105; Olivier Bernier, The Eighteenth Century Woman, New York: Doubleday, 1982: 235; Will Bashor, Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution, Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2013: 65

[4] Weber, 105.

[5] Weber, 106; Bashor, 66.

[6] Weber, 111.

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.