The Wig-Maker and Barber from Diderot’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project (umich.edu))
Hair and hairstyles have played an important role in the cultural identification of many societies throughout time. Some societies, such as the Amish in the United States and the Himba tribe of northern Namibia, still adhere to traditional hairstyles that have meaning to them as a group. Outside of cultures that assign meaning to traditional hairstyles, hair trends in general change over time. Some are instantly recognizable, such as the ‘Victory rolls’ of the early 1940s.
Hair beauty was an important societal norm in 18th-century America; the trend taking its cues from the royal courts of Europe. In addition to the appearance of one’s clothing, the social status of people could be ascertained by the physical appearance of their hair. Many tools were used to create the appropriate hairstyle, including combs and brushes, wigs and hairpieces, powders, curling irons, pomades, feathers, pins, jewels, and other objects.
The comb is one of the oldest hair maintenance tools in the archaeological record. Hair combs have been used for thousands of years and have been recovered from ancient Egyptian and Scythian tombs and Chinese palaces. In Pennsylvania, combs are recovered from Pre-contact American Indian sites and historic sites alike.
American Indian hair combs were generally carved from elk or deer antler. Carved effigy figures depicted on the combs include birds, humans, and animals, possibly related to their clan or oral traditions associated with the figure. This bird effigy comb was from Lancaster County dates to the early Pre-Contact period; unfortunately, only a portion of the comb was recovered. The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Archaeology Gallery exhibits include a variety of decorative hair combs.
Bird effigy hair comb, Lancaster County (From the collections of the PHMC, The State Museum of Pennsylvania)
During the 18th century, combs served different purposes. Some combs were used for general hair maintenance, some for cleaning the hair and removing pests, and some for decorative reasons. Everyday utilitarian combs would typically have been made from wood or bone, but decorative combs could be made from almost any material, including tortoiseshell, ivory, gold or other metals, or animal horn or tusks.
Bone lice comb recovered from Ephrata Cloister (From the collections of the PHMC, The State Museum of Pennsylvania)
Brass wire decorative hair comb (missing its tines) from the French Azilum (36BR0134) site (From the collections of the PHMC, The State Museum of Pennsylvania)
Decorative hair combs in the collection of the author: tortoiseshell (top left), unknown material, possibly horn (top right), and cow horn (bottom)
The hairbrushes below were recovered from excavations in downtown Philadelphia. The large, wooden brush, possibly made from chestnut wood, is very plain. Although it may have been painted or decorated at one time, the decoration is long gone. The second brush is very finely made, carved from ivory with a delicate scalloped shell design on the end. It’s small size and fine craftmanship indicate this brush may have been a present for a child. All bristles, which would have been stiff hairs from an animal such as a boar, are missing from both brushes.
Wooden (top) and ivory (bottom) hairbrushes from excavations in Philadelphia (From the collections of the PHMC, The State Museum of Pennsylvania)
During this period, hair was not washed as often as today. People used powders, made from corn and wheat flour, to degrease their hair or massaged oils into the scalp to freshen it. Other ‘shampoos’ used before this time included clays, plant products, animal fats, eggs, ashes, alcohol, vinegar, soap, and many other different natural mixtures. The first modern shampoos only came onto the market in the early 20th century.
Powdered wigs became fashionable in the mid-17th century in the royal court of France and the trend later spread to the rest of Europe and America. Wigs or the natural hair were powdered with the above-mentioned powders.
In Colonial America, wigs were generally worn by wealthy men. Wig-making was time consuming and expensive, so only elite members of society would have worn wigs - think Thomas Jefferson and many of the founding fathers. Additionally, maintenance was required to keep the wig clean, styled, curled, and powdered, so one would either need to visit a professional hairdresser periodically or would need to have servants capable of completing this task.
Visit the Colonial Williamsburg website Historic Trade:Wigmaker (colonialwilliamsburg.org) to view the steps to the making of a wig and for other information on wigs and wig-making in the 18th century.
Another important hair accessory in the 18th century was the wig curler. Wig curlers, sometimes called roulettes or bilboquet, were dumbbell-shaped clay objects used to set curls in the hair of a wig. Depending upon the size and tightness of the curl needed, wig curlers came in multiple sizes. These wig curlers, recovered archaeologically from a site in Philadelphia, will produce large and small sized curls.
Kaolin clay wig curlers from Philadelphia (From the collections of the PHMC, The State Museum of Pennsylvania)
Tools of the Wigmaker and hairdresser, showing wig curlers, from Diderot’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project (umich.edu))
There are many other interesting facets to hair care in the 18th century and throughout history. Hair styles, maintenance and styling products, and societal norms for both men and women have gone through as many changes as clothing styles. The websites listed below are only a few of the many highlighting aspects of hair style and trends throughout history.
We hope you have enjoyed this blog and will continue to visit us as we highlight the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. We invite you to view additional pieces from our collections.
Citations and Additional Reading: