J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Big Hair for Revolutionary Ladies

Last spring I quoted some letters of young Anna Green Winslow on Boston fashions in the early 1770s. In particular, she described her “heddus roll”: a combination of “a red Cow Tail,” coarse horsehair, and a little blond human hair, “all carded together and twisted up” to create padding for her own hair to be combed up and over.

Fashionable women didn’t replace their natural hair with wigs, as many men still did, but augmented their hair with such padding or even wire frames of the sort Lucy Knox wore. The goal was to have one’s hair built up into an impressive tower. In Anna’s case, her aunt found that the distance from her hairline to the top of her cap was one inch more than from her hairline to her chin. In the published edition of Anna’s letters (called a “diary,” so don’t be confused), editor Alice Morse Earle reported that a fashionable roll might weigh 14 ounces.

Earle also added this remark:

That same year the Boston Gazette had a laughable account of an accident to a young woman on Boston streets. She was knocked down by a runaway, and her headdress received the most serious damage. . . .
That anecdote was in turn picked up by other authors, as in Early American Costume, by Edward Warwick and Henry C. Pitz (1929).

However, I think Earle was misled by the newspaper. The story she described appeared in the Boston Gazette for 19 Aug 1771, but it looks like printers Edes and Gill had picked it up from the Pennsylvania Gazette of 8 August. Or perhaps from a British newspaper, because the Philadelphia printers had reported that the incident happened “in High Holborn,” a major street in London. It was common for newspaper printers to reprint each other’s material word for word, but usually they were more careful about saying where each story originated. Other New England printers who picked up the tale from the Boston Gazette assumed, like Earle, that it had happened in Boston.

Here’s the verbatim report from the Pennsylvania paper:
Some young man having tied an old broken chair to the tail of a large dog, turned him out into the street; away he run with great swiftness, and in his way the chair catched hold of the gown of a very genteel dressed woman, and threw her down with great force; the dog being very strong, and the chair holding in her gown, he drawed her a little way along the pavement, and bruised her in several places.

But this was not the worst of the scene; the Lady having her hair dressed in the modern perpendicular taste, the violence of the fall shook down this temporary monument to the very foundation, and great was the fall!

The materials with which it was erected were as follows: A piece of black stocking stuffed with black wool, and made proportionable to the manner in which the hair was dressed; and on the outside was hair very ingeniously worked into the stocking; upon this surprising piece of workmanship was frizzed the Lady’s own hair, in order to raise the edifice.

She being disentangled, got up, and complained of being hurt a little, but took no notice of her piece of ornament for the head, which some boys had got hold of, kicking about the street as a foot-ball.
When the Boston Gazette passed on the tale to its readers, the printers changed the black stocking to “black knit breeches,” which hardly shows a concern for journalistic accuracy. I’m not 100% sure this happened anyway, even in London. It has all the hallmarks of an urban legend of the sort Snopes.com tracks, a story too good to verify. Ladies’ towering hair styles made easy targets for caricatures and moral lessons.

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