In the fall of 1821 the Boston Daily Advertiser published an elderly citizen’s reminiscences under the headline “The Olden Time”; those passages were reprinted in other newspapers up and down the Atlantic coast. On the important matter of hair-dressing, the essayist wrote:
Till within about 10 years, gentlemen wore powder, and many sat from 30 to 40 minutes every day under the barber’s hands to have their hair craped—suffering no inconsiderable pain most of the time from hair-pulling, and sometimes from the hot curling-irons.Astonishingly, this article managed not to say that when the writer was your age, children had to walk to school four miles in the snow, uphill both ways. But it did report that upper-class colonial boys wore their hair as their fathers did:
Before the revolution boys wore wigs and cocked hats, and boys of genteel families wore cocked hats till within about thirty years.However, fashions change. We saw that in the last two years, when it seemed that every American boy between ten and sixteen received a message to stop getting their hair cut very short and start growing it rather long, especially over the ears. Presumably this suggestion came in some sort of text-message.
I see a similar, perhaps slower evolution in hairstyles in the portraits of American and English boys in the years before and during the American Revolution. Our typical Johnny Tremain image of the time has teen-aged boys wearing their hair pulled back in a queue, perhaps braided. And indeed, there are portraits of boys, even quite young ones, with such styled hair—in the 1750s.
For example, the Gore Children by John S. Copley, painted about 1755 and now at the Winterthur Museum, shows Sammy Gore (he’s on the right, still in his petticoat) with hair combed smartly back from his forehead, side curls, and a queue. Copley hadn’t developed his technique well enough to show whether Sammy and his older brother John were wearing wigs, but clearly a lot of effort had gone into shaping what was on their heads.
The styles of the 1760s look different. Copley painted two pictures of his young half-brother, Henry Pelham:
- a lovely sketch of Henry reading around 1760
- a formal painting with a flying squirrel at age fifteen
Six years later, Copley painted little Daniel Verplanck of New York (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). His hair was short everywhere but in back. The next year brought young Leonard Vassall with his father, and much the same haircut. In 1779, Ralph Earl painted William Carpenter; this picture, now at the Worcester Art Museum and shown above, includes slightly longer bangs and wisps over the ears, still with loose locks in back.
In the 1780s, Copley was an established painter in England, and his portraits show further evolution in hairstyles. Midshipman Augustus Brine, the Western brothers, and the bickering Stillwells indicate that genteel boys’ heads had gotten almost as shaggy as their dogs. Now they wore bangs, hair over their ears, and even more hair in the back. Other artists working in Britain captured much the same look in the 1780s:
- from Joseph Wright of Derby, the cricket-playing Wood brothers of 1789 (but look who's got the ball!)
- from Boston-born Mather Brown, the children of Sir William Pepperell, now at Longfellow House
- from Ralph Earl, the portrait of brothers I linked to last month (and still have not received as a surprise present)