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.

Follow by Email

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Did She or Didn't She? Only Her Hairdresser Knew

What I originally announced as Bad Hair Week has turned into Bad Hair Month at Boston 1775, with intermittent postings about genteel people wearing wigs, not wearing wigs, and otherwise getting the most out of their hair. Today I bring this series to a close with remarks about the secret side of hairdressers.

No, not whether women dyed their hair, as in the old Miss Clairol ads. This posting involves extramarital affairs, so it might be inappropriate for the kids.

(Hello, kids! I thought that would get your attention.)

The elaborate hairstyles that the rich wore in the 1700s often required careful preparation, “30 to 40 minutes every day” for gentlemen, potentially longer for ladies before a big occasion. That meant many wealthy husbands were paying hairdressers to spend hours in close, private contact with their wives—and did that lead to anything else?

At least in gossip from London, women did have affairs with men who dressed their hair. On 13 Aug 1771, for example, the Essex Gazette reprinted gossip from London about one “Admiral R——y” having papers served on his wife for divorce. According to the scandal sheets:

One of the Gentlemen, with whom a certain Admiral’s Lady was too intimate, we hear, is Capt. A——y. A favourite footman is also talked of: the Lady, it seems, had put him out of livery, & been at the expence of his being taught to dress hair, on purpose to attend her on her voyage.
The notion that gentlemen should worry about their wives’ hairdressers also showed up in popular prints of the era. And here I rely on the online collection of satirical mezzotints from London prepared by John Hart at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon—well worth a browse.

“A Hint to Married Men” (1794), also issued as “Lady Friz at Her Toilet,” shows a lady enjoying the close attention of a French hairdresser—obviously something for married men to worry about. “A Hint to the Husbands, or the Dresser, properly Dressed” (1777, above) shows an enraged husband taking action against his wife’s beautician. And for genteel fathers, “The Boarding-School Hair-Dresser” (1786) serves up the eighteenth century’s visual symbolism for sex: the helpful hairdresser straddles the leg of the young lady.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

William Lang: hairdresser of Salem

While looking up something else in the early American newspaper database, I kept running across the advertisement of an Essex County hairdresser named William Lang. I thought his words offered a useful snapshot of how he and his customers thought about their wigs and hair. This notice ran in the Essex Gazette throughout 1773:

William Lang
Wig-Maker and Hair-Dresser,

Hereby informs the Public that he has hired a Person from EUROPE, by whose Assistance he is now enabled, in the several Branches of his Business, to serve his good Customers, and all others, in the most genteel and polite Tastes that are at present in fashion in England and America.

-----In Particular, WIGS made in any Mode whatever, such as may grace and become the most important Heads, whether those of Judges, Divines [i.e., clergymen], Lawyers or Physicians; together with all those of an inferior Kind, so as exactly to suit their respective Occupations and Inclinations.

-----HAIR DRESSING, for Ladies and Gentlemen, performed in the most elegant and newest Taste.-----Ladies, in a particular Manner, shall be attended to, in the nice, easy, genteel and polite Construction of ROLLS, such as may tend to raise their Heads to any Pitch they desire,----also French Curls, made in the neatest Manner.

He gives Cash for Hair.
Here’s more about the different styles of wigs for different professions (as opposed to those of us of the “inferior kind”). And here’s a posting about ladies’ head-raising rolls.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Constitution and the Commander-in-Chief

People are paying a lot more attention these days to how the U.S. Constitution defines (and doesn’t define) the military authority of the President and Congress. Members of the Bush-Cheney administration have cited the President’s role as “commander-in-chief” as if that conveyed the power to unilaterally decide anything vaguely military, including (at latest count) overseas deployments, surveillance of anti-war activists in the U.S. of A., trials of people who are specifically not classified as prisoners of war, &c.

In today’s New York Times Assistant Editor and lawyer Adam Cohen uses the “Editorial Observer” column to look at what the Constitution and Supreme Court decisions really say. Here’s an extract about the document’s original context and early interpretation:

The Constitution’s provision that the president is the commander in chief clearly puts him at the top of the military chain of command. Congress would be overstepping if, for example, it passed a law requiring generals in the field to report directly to the speaker of the House.

But the Constitution also gives Congress an array of war powers, including the power to “declare war,” “raise and support armies” and “make rules concerning captures on land and water.” By “declare war,” the Constitution’s framers did not mean merely firing off a starting gun. In the 18th century, war declarations were often limited in scope — European powers might fight a naval battle in the Americas, for example, but not battle on their own continent. In giving Congress the power to declare war, the Constitution gives it authority to make decisions about a war’s scope and duration.

The Founders, including James Madison, who is often called “the father of the Constitution,” fully expected Congress to use these powers to rein in the commander in chief. “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it,” Madison cautioned. “It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature.”

In the early days of the republic, the Supreme Court made clear that Congress could limit the president’s war powers — notably in the Flying Fish case. In 1799, during the “Quasi War,” the undeclared sea war between the United States and France, Congress authorized President John Adams to clamp down on trade between the two nations by stopping ships headed to French ports. But Adams went further, ordering commanders to stop ships that were sailing to or from a French port.

When the Flying Fish was seized while sailing from a French port — something Congress had not authorized — the ship’s owner sued. The Supreme Court decided in his favor, ruling that the president had no right to issue the order he did. John Marshall, the nation’s greatest chief justice [shown above], declared that even in a time of hostilities, a president’s decision to act militarily beyond what Congress had authorized was “unlawful.”
I think anyone reading Gen. George Washington’s wartime correspondence would notice how much he deferred to Congress on major decisions. He advised that legislature strongly, clearly advocating for certain decisions and almost begging for others, but he didn’t view his appointment as commander-in-chief to mean that he was the ultimate decision-maker and was careful to avoid implying he was. He worked for Congress, which in turn worked for the people of the thirteen states.

Later Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and served as the first President under its new federal structure. For his remarks on the limits of Presidential powers, see this posting.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why Israel Putnam?

Someone using the handle “richmond va” has sent in this question:

I’d like to ask if you could tell me why a Petersburg, Va. foundry in the early 1800’s would create a number of andirons in the likeness of Israel Putnam, rather than someone else more famous like G Washington. Thanks
Questioning the fame of Israel Putnam (1718-1790) shows that you’re not from Connecticut. I’m not, either, so I can answer the question.

In the early republic, Gen. Putnam was to Connecticut what Stonewall Jackson was to the Old Dominion after Reconstruction, except that the state didn’t also have a Robert E. Lee to share the attention. Connecticut’s modern household-name Revolutionary heroes hadn’t yet been discovered: Nathan Hale was still nothing more than an agent caught and hanged on his first mission, and the legend of Sybil Ludington was unknown outside her immediate family (if it was known there).

Putnam had been famous before the Revolution began because of his personal bravery, both in fighting against French and Indians and in bagging a wolf on his farm. Private soldiers also seem to have remained fond of “Old Put,” who could never act as aloofly as Washington. (He was also popular with a small coterie of British officers he had befriended during the earlier wars.) As a result, Connecticut and areas settled by folks from that state provided a strong market for Putnam memorabilia. The Petersburg foundry might also have made souvenirs of Washington and other Revolutionary heroes, of course.

Putnam’s actual record during the Revolutionary War never matched those early expectations. In the early 1800s there was an ongoing and sometimes vituperative argument over whether he or Col. William Prescott was in command at Bunker Hill. Now historians agree that Putnam spent most of his time riding around behind the lines unsuccessfully urging more provincial troops to join the fray.

Putnam didn’t have the strategic sense to match his personal bravery. He was forced into retreat at the Battle of Long Island in 1776, and abandoned Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery to the British in 1777. Washington then assigned him to recruiting duty and later to regional commands. In 1779, Putnam suffered a bad stroke and had to retire to his farm.

Despite that record, early U.S. historians treated Putnam very well, listing him among the Continental Army’s most important commanders. Col. David Humphreys, a former aide (who was also from Connecticut), wrote a laudatory biography of the general in 1818. The general’s hasty retreat from British troops in Greenwich was turned (with a little massaging of the facts) into a legend. Even now, admirers and descendants of “Old Put” can be fervently loyal.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

New England Style at Old South in February 2007

In the spirit of former congregant Anna Green Winslow, Old South Meeting-House has invited “fashionistas everywhere” to a series of midday presentations each Thursday in February 2007. “Fashion Conscious: A History of New England Style” will explore evolution in styles from the 1600s through the 1900s: how fabrics were acquired, how styles changed, international influences, and personal histories. Here’s the line-up.

1 Feb: Comfort and Style: 17th & 18th Century Fabrics
From a simple shift to an elegant open gown, textiles were a valued commodity in the colonial era. In an illustrated lecture, Diane Fagan Affleck, Senior Research Associate at the American Textile History Museum, discusses the complex means by which fabrics were acquired and the myriad styles and designs available to American colonists.

8 Feb: A Social History of Victorian Costume, by textile and costume historian Lynne Bassett

15 Feb: When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear, by Prof. Patricia Campbell Warner (book-signing to follow)

22 Feb: Needles and Pens: The Sewing Diaries of Four American Women, 1883-1920, by Karen Herbaugh, Curator at the American Textile History Museum

I’ve given short shrift to the presentations past the eighteenth century, but you can find longer descriptions of each event at the Freedom Trail Events page.

All lectures run 12:15 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Thursdays. The cost for each is $5 adults, $4 students/seniors, free for members. Old South Meeting House is located at 310 Washington Street in downtown Boston, near the Downtown Crossing and other T stops. For more information, call 617-482-6439.

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.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lucy Knox: elaborately coiffed hostess

On 7 July 1787, the Rev. Dr. Manasseh Cutler (shown at right in later life) wrote in his journal about a dinner party in New York:

Dined with General [Henry] Knox, introduced to his lady and a French nobleman, Marquis Lotbinière. Several other gentlemen dined with us. Our dinner was served in high style, much in the French taste.

Mrs. Knox is very gross [i.e., fat], but her manners are easy and agreeable. She is sociable, and would be agreeable, were it not for her affected singularity in dressing her hair. She seems to mimic the military style, which to me is very disgusting in a female.

Her hair in front is craped at least a foot high, much in the form of a churn bottom upward, and topped off with a wire skeleton in the same form, covered with black gauze, which hangs in streamers down to her back. Her hair behind is a large braid, and confined with a monstrous crooked comb.
Apparently when Dr. Cutler said Lucy Knox’s hair appeared “to mimic the military style,” he meant it ended up looking like a grenadier’s cap. To “crape” hair was the curl it tightly, and it was standard treatment for men as well as women in the late eighteenth century. It added more body—apparently a lot more body.

There was no question her hair was not the only thing big about Lucy Knox at this time. We think of Henry Knox as fat, but in 1788 Abigail Smith, daughter of Abigail and John Adams, told her mother about the general’s wife:
her size is enormous; I am frightened when I look at her; I verily believe that her waist is as large as three of yours at least. The general is not half so fat as he was.
But being heavy doesn’t seem to have affected Lucy’s longevity. She lived until 1824, outliving her husband and most of their money, and died at the age of 68.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Myth of the Quilt Code

Yesterday the New York Times front page reported on historians’ dismay at the myth that patchwork quilts were used to guide escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. In particular, quilt designs have been incorporated into a monument to Frederick Douglass in Central Park (Algernon Miller’s floor design shown at left). Experts in the history of slavery are pushing back, and the city is rethinking the plaques originally intended to explain those patchwork designs as part of the “quilt code.”

The article quotes artist Miller as saying, “No matter what anyone has to say, they weren’t there in that particular moment, especially something that was in secret.” Of course, he wasn’t there, either. The crucial fact is that no person who was there escaping from slavery or helping others to escape is documented as ever saying a word about a quilt code.

Nor is there any example of an antebellum quilt that fits the system. The different “quilt codes” that a handful of people have described based on family oral traditions are inconsistent with each other, with the historical realities of how Americans escaped from slavery, and with the history of quilting.

This topic has little to do with Revolutionary New England, but I was involved in the online discussions which prompted the Times article. The first began in October 2005, when Prof. Donovan Conley of the UNLV Department of Communication Studies contacted H-Amstdy (an email list on American Studies), and thence H-Slavery (on the history of slavery), with this request:

I have a student working on a masters project about the communicational and political uses of quilts throughout the underground railroad. He’s discovering an inherent problem with the project: the lack of primary research materials.
Several members of the H-Slavery list were familiar with the “quilt code” hypothesis from the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View, by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobar, and a private Underground Railroad Quilt Code Museum in Atlanta. Discussion followed for three days, with over a dozen people writing in. Several members of the H-Slavery list pointed Conley to Leigh Fellner’s website thoroughly debunking the myth of quilts and the Underground Railroad.

Prof. David Blight, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, summed up the overwhelming consensus of the group this way:
The reason your student is not finding primary material on quilting in the Underground Railroad is because in all likelihood there isn’t any. This is “myth” of the softest kind that serves the needs of the present for people who prefer their history as lore and little else. . . .

The quilt story...will survive and thrive as long as it serves real needs in the desires many people have from history—to convert tragedy into something triumphal, suffering into progress, complexity into curiosity, nitty gritty social and political history into material culture we can touch and see.
Conley’s student proceeded with his project, inserting (with some inaccuracies) quotations and summaries of the H-Slavery discussion into his thesis—which still rested on the assumption that the “quilt code” is fact. UNLV awarded a master’s degree. News of that prompted a new round of discussions on H-Slavery last month, which in turn caught the attention of History News Network and the Times.

My original contribution to the discussion was a close reading of Tobin’s introduction to Hidden in Plain View. As she described her research, it struck me she was so eager to connect to African-American history that she overlooked how little evidence she actually had, of either the “quilt code” or genuine friendship with her elderly African-American informant—who was making her living by selling quilts. I saw Tobin’s wishfulness as mirroring a desire for racial reconciliation in today’s America:
During that talk, Tobin writes, she comes to think of herself as “one of only a few trusted people” to hear about the quilts’ secret. Both Williams and her eventual coauthor Raymond Dobard have told her she would learn the secrets only when she was “ready.” At last, this second conversation seems to confirm, Tobin is “ready” for such a secret. And, by implication, so are the book's readers and America as a whole.
In the more recent discussion, Roberta Gold offered this perceptive observation on the “quilt code”:
It seems to me that the spread of the quilt myth is part of a larger popular “domestication” of African American past, in which the complex, bleak and tragic dimensions of black history are softened and smoothed into something that isn’t too disturbing to teach to kindergartners. . . . The injustice is not erased, exactly, but it’s air-brushed with a disproportionate amount of heartwarming, feel-good interpretation. In the case of “code quilts,” it’s literally made into something warm and fuzzy.
Indeed, there are many elementary school lesson plans about the “quilt code,” despite all the serious historical questions. (This lesson from Queens University in Ontario is so inaccurate as to say that Tobin’s main informant is still alive. As Hidden in Plain View reported, she died in 1998.) My paper on “grandmothers’ stories” of the Revolution argues that well-structured tales we learn early in life—as the “quilt code” aspires to be—have a particularly strong hold on our understanding of history later. So this myth could be around for a while, even after people realize it’s a myth. (The “quilt code” has also been publicized in other influential, non-scholarly ways: Oprah, quilting patterns, the web.)

The National Park Service, on its guard against feel-good myths, has issued guidelines for evaluating historical traditions about the Underground Railroad. The “quilt code” doesn’t match up to those guidelines for strong evidence.

On the other hand, the National Security Agency has a webpage all about the “quilt code,” which it insists is based on ”strong oral tradition and collateral information.“ And that’s the agency we’re supposed to trust to judge our electronic communications?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Liberty Boys of '76 Dime Novels

People often say that the Revolutionary War seems far more remote than the U.S. Civil War, the outward fashions especially, and that’s prevented the earlier conflict from becoming as popular with American readers and moviegoers as the latter. Of course, we are in a period of “founders’ chic,” but that seems to be taken up with biographies (many very good) of the very top men in society.

One hundred years ago, however, when the Civil War was almost as recent as the Vietnam War is to us today, Revolutionary War adventures were still highly marketable. The Stanford University library has created a website archiving the dime novels of that period, but for our purposes today only one series matters:

The Liberty Boys of ’76!

As the Stanford librarians explain, this 1901-1920 series
Chronicles the adventures of Captain Dick Slater and the Liberty Boys, a band of patriotic, young freedom fighters during the American Revolutionary War. Stories are set at pivotal moments in the war and peopled by historical figures such as Washington, Cornwallis, Franklin and Lafayette. The heroics of Slater and his men are credited with playing a vital role in the American army's ability to outmaneuver British forces.
Unfortunately, the full texts of these pieces of fine literature aren’t available for online reading. All we can see are the covers, which make the series seem less staid, less historically based, less—let’s face it—sane than that description. So, direct from the Stanford servers, here are two samples from the scores available for viewing.


Left: Cross-dressing British spies! “Dick and Bob were almost paralyzed with amazement. The supposed women were British officers, and this was not what the youths were looking for.” (Dick learns to cross-dress himself by the time of “The Liberty Boys’ Oath.”)

Right: Dangerous dwarfs! “The dwarf knocked one ‘Liberty Boy’ senseless and seized the other in a grip of iron, handling the youth as if he were a child. The other ‘Liberty Boys’ rushed to the rescue.” (The boys find their own small ally in “The Liberty Boys and the ‘Midget’.”)

I’m sorry to say that whoever wrote this series didn’t seem to find much inspiration in New England battles. Except for the Battle of Bennington (which wasn’t really in New England anyway), most adventures of the “Liberty Boys” appear to take place in the middle and later years of the war, and in the Middle and Southern states. The young soldiers may not have enlisted in time for Lexington & Concord or Bunker Hill.

The series’s insatiable need for material seems to have prompted the writers to concoct stories involving non-white characters. I have little hope that those characters are much more than stereotypes, but there are Native American fighters (“Reds”) and blacks on both sides of the conflict.

Just as American students today get much of their sense of the Revolution from such fiction as Johnny Tremain and My Brother Sam Is Dead, probably The Liberty Boys of ’76 and any similar popular literature influenced how young Americans of a century ago understood the war. The main difference was, of course, that no teacher ever had to assign these dime novels, or dreamed of doing so. Did the “Liberty Boys” influence how young Americans viewed Britain during World War 2? Did they have any influence over the Progressive historians of the 1920s and beyond?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Another John Adams Portrait

Back in May, I wrote about the many faces of John Adams one could find in museums and/or online. Here's a link to yet another portrait of John Adams, which I didn't know about until it appeared in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Charlestown native Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1862) painted it in 1816, and it's now at the Brooklyn Museum. (Folks interested in the theory that Adams suffered from a thyroid disorder can check his eyeballs.)

This was the same Samuel F. B. Morse who developed Morse code in the 1830s and 1840s; that was back when portrait artists could also be at the forefront of communications technology. Morse wasn't the first person to invent an electric telegraph, but he was the first to produce an efficient way of sending ordinary messages across it, and thus made the invention into part of daily life.

Other people had toyed with the same idea for decades, going back to a 1753 letter in The Scots' Magazine signed by "C.M." and datelined "Renfrew, Feb. 1, 1753." That letter, which contained some other electrical ideas also well ahead of their time, was reprinted in full in Notes and Queries, 25 Mar 1854, and thus available through Google Book. By the end of the nineteenth century, British historians seem to have settled on Dr. Charles Morrison of Greenock as the most likely identity for "C.M." He was said to have emigrated to Virginia, so the telegraph was still, in one way, an American invention.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Elizabeth Smith Has a London Makeover

In October 1769, the wealthy widow Elizabeth Smith sailed for Britain, her first visit in fifteen years, as Patricia Cleary recounts in Elizabeth Murray: A Woman’s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (UMass Press, 2000).

In 1749 Elizabeth had emigrated to Boston from Scotland. Originally she was supposed to live with her older brother James Murray on his plantation in North Carolina, but she saw better prospects for herself as an unmarried shopkeeper in the northern port. She prospered, taught embroidery to a generation of young ladies, mentored a few women in business, and married twice, the second time to elderly merchant and distiller James Smith.

James Smith died in August 1769, leaving Elizabeth a substantial fortune. She put her real estate in the hands of her brother, who hadn’t done so well to the south after all, and went to visit the Empire’s big city. Of course, she had to have clothing and hairstyle appropriate to a woman of her age and station. Cleary describes the arrangements Elizabeth made in London:

“I have submitted to all the forms of Dress,” she reported, ”except blacking my hair.” Instead, Elizabeth paid a barber to come to her quarters every other day to curl and powder her tresses. On the days the barber did not make a house call, she had someone to tend to her locks for her.

In the mornings, before going out, Elizabeth covered her head with a queen’s nightcap that made her look “a strange figure.” Once it was off and her hair elaborately styled, Elizabeth wore a “genteely made” outfit with ruffles and a high crowned cap. “You would be pleased with my appearance,” she told a friend.
(Boston 1775 has also posted some of the other side of Elizabeth Smith’s correspondence with that friend, Christian Barnes of Marlborough.)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Revolution in Boys' Hair

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:Both of these are now in display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Copley did the second in 1765 to show folks in London all that he could paint (satin cloth! tiny links of chain! water in a glass! a reflective table!). So Henry’s hair must have been in a style thought attractive and up-to-date. It was still combed back from the forehead and over the ears, but now it was natural and loose.

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:But as for the style most right for 1776, that seems to be the way Leonard Vassall and William Carpenter wore their hair: short on the sides and top, long in the back. Yes, the first generation of rich American white boys came of age wearing something embarrassingly like a mullet.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Running Away to Join the Hive

The Hive is a gathering of Revolutionary-era living historians helping each other raise the level of their portrayal of New Englanders in 1775—particularly during the yearly reenactments of the Battle of Lexington & Concord. People are meeting on the first Sunday of each month at the Buttrick House across the street from the National Park Service’s Visitor Center in Concord. (Not the Visitor Center in Lexington; nothing across the street there.)

The January gathering featured a “Runaway Runway”—a fashion show-style display of outfits based on newspaper advertisements seeking the return of indentured workers or deserters from the late 1700s. The Hive’s webpage on that event includes photos and descriptions of several desperate characters, well worth a look. (There are rewards for spotting some of these people, after all.)

Runaway advertisements are excellent sources on what people wore. Many offer detailed descriptions of exactly what each escapee was wearing when last seen. They’re thus a better guide to daily dress for common folk than formal portraits, which always show the well off as they wanted to be seen and sometimes show them in imaginary outfits. On the other hand, some of those runaway folks might be a little too “common” to be typical; they were disproportionately new immigrants or people with some native or African ancestry, almost by definition poor and/or enslaved. The typical New England farm family dressed somewhere in between a person running for freedom with what he or she could carry and a merchant paying good money for his portrait.

So as not to lose the wigs-and-hair thread for this month, I note a few hirsute comments in the runaway ads quoted on the Hive site:

MARY NOWLAND; her age I know not but she is old sold her hair of gray and black to the peruke maker, face of putty, red hands well worn and short of height, her teeth are good.
Eighteenth-century wigmakers found older women's hair the most valuable because it was long and soft and—though not in this case—already white.

CATHERINE WATERSON...She has very long black hair, which she wore either clubbed behind, or platted, and rolled round her head, wears no cap
“Clubbed” meant folded and tied back in a stiff queue (or ponytail). “Platted” was “plaited” or braided, and in this case wrapped around her head.

a Servant Man name MATHIAS...6 feet high, pale wearing his natural hair, as it remains, short.
This ad is curious to me because it gives no last name for the man, who is obviously somewhat mature. But I can’t actually find any of these ads in the online newspaper archive I have access to, which is still a work in progress.

a boy, who calls himself NICHOLAS KELLY,...about 12 years of age but very poorly grown, brown hair tied sometimes
Which means that sometimes young Nicholas didn’t tie his hair back in a queue, but let it hang loose. (More about boys’ hair coming soon to Boston 1775.)

The next Hive meeting is on Sunday, 4 February, 1:00-5:00, with the topics “A Field Guide to British Uniforms,” “Mending 101,” and “Make a Petticoat” (bring your own supplies). The day before, there’s a $35 workshop on constructing a woman's cap in an authentic style that’s nonetheless flattering to you.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Update on Something of a Scandal

Today's Boston Globe includes an oped piece by Daniel Coquillette, former dean of Boston College Law School and co-editor of a new book on Josiah Quincy, Jr., about lawyers' obligation to represent unpopular defendants. It cites the same exchange between Quincy and his father that Boston 1775 quoted last fall, and discusses Quincy's death from tuberculosis in 1775.

Yesterday Defense Department official Cully Stimson apologized for criticizing the top law firms representing detainees at Guantanamo in their attempts to receive fair trials. His letter to the Washington Post said:

I apologize for what I said and to those lawyers and law firms who are representing clients at Guantanamo. I hope that my record of public service makes clear that those comments do not reflect my core beliefs.
So whose beliefs was he reflecting?

George Washington Sat Here?

On 19 January, Sotheby's in New York is scheduled to auction this chair. It's Lot 362 in a sale of "Important Americana including Property Approved for Deacession [sic] by the Board of Trustees of Historic Deerfield." (Not that this chair necessarily came from Deerfield.)

The chair comes with a seventy-year-old note that says:

This chair is one of a set of six loaned by William
Greenleaf, High Sheriff of Suffolk County, to help furnish General
Washington's Headquarters when he occupied the building now
known as the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From July 1775
until March 1776.
Washington's Headquarters were in Wadsworth House from July 1 to July 15, 1775.
Wm. Greenleaf
Elizabeth Greenleaf - m. Samuel Eliot
Wm. G. Eliot
Thomas D. Eliot.
Margaret E. Gifford 1933
Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers sold another chair from this set a year ago for $51,920.

During Boston's pre-Revolutionary turmoil, Stephen Greenleaf (1704-1795) was the royally appointed sheriff of Suffolk County, which then included both the capital and all of modern Norfolk County extending to the Rhode Island border. He supported the royal governors' attempts to impose their rules on the Whigs, though not aggressively. In provincial Massachusetts, a sheriff's main job was to deliver and execute warrants and writs in private lawsuits, not to police the county.

After the war broke out and the Continental Army besieged Boston, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress decided that it should appoint a new Suffolk County sheriff under its own authority. On 31 Oct 1775 that legislature chose William Greenleaf (1725-1803), Stephen's younger brother, who had been an apothecary.

When the British military left Boston, Stephen stayed in town, resigned his post, and kept quiet about his Loyalist sentiments. William remained sheriff for five years; the high point was formally reading out the Declaration of Independence from the Old State House with Col. Thomas Crafts. After leaving the job in 1780, William set up a business in New Bedford.

Just to add to the confusion, another William Greenleaf (1738-1793), a nephew of those two brothers, was sheriff of Worcester County for a few years after the Revolution, including the period of the Shays rebellion. So it's quite maddening to sort out references to "Sheriff Greenleaf."

The chairs seem to have come down from the Suffolk County sheriff William to his eldest child, Elizabeth (1750-1841); then to her youngest child, William Greenleaf Eliot (1781-1853), who married his first cousin Margaret Greenleaf Dawes (1789-1875), the better to keep the family property together; then to their eldest child, Rep. Thomas Dawes Eliot (1808-1870)—and then I lose the path.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shaving Heads and Faces for a Living

A report on price-fixing from the New-England Courant, the newspaper owned James Franklin, on 30 Nov 1724:

Boston, Dec. 7, on Tuesday the first of this Instant [i.e., this very month] in the Evening, Thirty-two Principal Barbers of this Place, assembled at the Golden Ball [tavern], with a Trumpeter attending them, to debate some important Articles relating to their occupations; where it was propos’d, that they should raise their shaving from 8 to 10 s[hillings] per Quarter, and that they should advance [i.e., go up] 5 s, on the Price of making common Wiggs and 10 s on their Tye ones.
(Printer James's ungrateful apprentice and younger brother Benjamin had skipped town for Philadelphia the previous year.)

Half a century later, teenager Ebenezer Fox became apprentice to a barber and wigmaker, an employment he recalled in his Revolutionary Adventures, published in 1838. (Author picture above.) After the British military left the province in 1776, he recalled:
my brother and myself were sent into Boston to choose our trades and seek our employers. James found a situation in the bakery of Mr. Edward Tuckerman in the south part of the town, as an apprentice upon probation; and I found employment in the shop of Mr. John Bosson, a barber and manufacturer of wigs, upon the same conditions.

After we had been in these situations long enough for all parties to be satisfied, we were bound by my father in regular form as apprentices.
It was for such moments that The Complete Letter-Writer included a model epistle "From a young Apprentice to his Father, to let him know how he likes his Place, and goes on." Fox remembered his workload like this:
My principal employment was in the preparation of hair for the purposes of wigs, crape-cushions, &c.; being occasionally allowed to scrape the face of some transient customer, who might be reasonably expected never to call again for a repetition of the operation.
Back in August I quoted Fox's description of how he came to leave Bosson's barber-shop two years later.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

John S. Copley Paints Nathaniel Hurd

Two days ago Boston 1775 featured John Singleton Copley's portrait of Boston merchant Nicholas Boylston in his cap, banyan, and shaved head. By dressing so casually and resting his arm on books, Boylston showed the world that he was so wealthy and genteel that he could retire from business and devote himself to intellectual pursuits. (Not that I recall any particularly intellectual productions from him, but that's another story.)

Copley painted the silversmith Nathaniel Hurd in much the same style of dress—or undress. That portrait, shown here, is now at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Unlike Boylston, Hurd was a craftsman—albeit a luxury craftsman who worked in gold and silver for an elite clientele. Hurd also engraved book plates and illustrations, which provided a concrete link between him and the volumes pictured on his table. Nevertheless, I sense that Copley struggled over whether it was appropriate to paint a mechanic like Hurd in the same style as a gentleman like Boylston.

There is a similar, unfinished painting of Hurd at Rochester University's Memorial Art Gallery. It also shows the silversmith with a cap over his shaved head, but he has one sleeve rolled up to show his working-man's biceps—not a detail that appears in any other Copley portrait. And Hurd doesn't look happy about the portrayal. He's clearly more satisfied in/with the picture above.

I think Copley's depictions of Hurd map out a middle ground between his images of the Boylston brothers and other wealthy merchants and his now more famous painting of Paul Revere. Copley portrayed Revere as a working silversmith, a silver teapot in his hand and his engraving tools on the table before him. This is a very rare formal portrait of an eighteenth-century craftsman at work, by any artist, and it differs in several respects from Copley's other paintings. Revere wears either his own brown hair or a wig that looks like his natural hair instead of a white wig. He wears an open collar, showing a bit of chest; as far as I can tell, all the merchants and gentlemen Copley painted have their shirts buttoned up tight and cloths around their necks.

And what do you know? Nathaniel Hurd's collar is open, too—more like Revere than like Boylston. I suspect that might symbolize how Hurd wasn't quite as high-class as his cap and banyan might imply.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Nightcaps in the Daytime

Yesterday I linked to some portraits of Boston merchants without their wigs. In those paintings they wore their banyans (dressing-gowns) and night-caps, signaling that they were interested in the life of the mind. Did they dress like that only in private, or did they ever go out in public in their gowns and caps?

According to Dr. Alexander Hamilton (no relation to the U.S. Treasurer), Philadelphia gentlemen did dress that casually in public in 1744. In that year the doctor took a journey for his health from Annapolis to York, Maine, and back, and he wrote a delightful travel narrative (reprinted in this Penguin Classics paperback). In Boston, Hamilton wrote:

I dined with Mr. Fletcher in the company of two Philadelphians, who could not be easy because forsooth they were in their night-caps seeing every body else in full dress with powdered wigs; it not being customary in Boston to go to dine or appear upon Change in caps as they do in other parts of America.
In the 1700s people "dined" in early afternoon, not at night, so these Philadelphians (and businessmen in "other parts of America") wore their "night-caps" at the height of day. To "appear upon Change" meant to meet with other businessmen in the town's central trading and deal-making area—the Royal Exchange in London, Exchange Lane in Boston, I-don't-know-where in Philadelphia.

Dr. Hamilton went on:
What strange creatures we are, and what triffles make us uneasy! It is no mean jest that such worthless things as caps and wigs should disturb our tranquility and disorder our thoughts when we imagine they are wore out of season.

I was my self much in the same state of uneasiness with these Philadelphians, for I had got such a hole in the lappet of my coat, to hide which employed so much of my thoughts in company that, for want of attention, I could not give a pertinent answer when I was spoke to.
That last paragraph shows why I love this account: Hamilton is able to spot the same vanity in himself as in the men from Philadelphia.

Perhaps twenty years after Dr. Hamilton's visit Bostonians had come to "walk upon Change" in their night-caps, but I suspect not. I've found only one group of men described as wearing their caps instead of their wigs in public, and that group was schoolmasters. According to the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Homer, "Masters [John] Lovell and [John] Proctor...wore a cap when not in full dress." Lovell, master at Boston's South Latin School, also had Nathaniel Smibert paint his portrait in a nightcap rather than a wig. (Proctor was master at the nearby Writing School on Queen Street.)

But of course teachers:
  • were scholars, and thus already interested in the life of the mind; and
  • dealt mainly with children, not other gentlemen, and therefore didn't have to keep up such appearances.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What Was Under Those White Wigs

In eighteenth-century America, most gentlemen wore carefully shaped white wigs, or powdered their hair to produce much the same look. I think only one hairstyle was more fashionably upper-class than wearing such a wig:

not wearing such a wig.

As Karin Calvert wrote in Of Consuming Interests:
In the privacy of his home or in an informal public setting, a gentleman removed his wig—which was hot, heavy, made the head itch, and could so cover the ears as seriously to impair hearing—and covered his shaved head with a soft nightcap. This was a cap commonly worn in the evenings and is not to be mistaken for a bedcap.
Furthermore, wearing a cap instead of a wig signaled to other people that one was more interested in the life of the mind than in worldly concerns like crafts, business, and politics. And since only wealthy and genteel men could afford not to be interested in business, showing up in a cap demonstrated that one had reached the pinnacle of gentility.

Several gentlemen of the time had their portraits painted in their banyans (flowing robes, like dressing-gowns), nightcaps, and shaved heads. The John S. Copley painting above shows Nicholas Boylston, a wealthy Boston merchant who tilted toward the Whigs. (A larger scan of this image appears in the Wikipedia entry on banyans.) Boylston had his head shaved in order to wear a wig, but didn't wear his wig in this expensive portrait. Instead, his pose signals, he's more interested in the books under his left arm.

Nicholas's brother Thomas Boylston chose a similar approach for his Copley portrait. And here are two other portraits of gentlemen with shaved heads. When we imagine John and Abigail Adams at home in the 1760s and 1770s, discussing their children, politics, and books, we might have to think of John with his head shaved as clean as Curly Howard's.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Something of a Scandal from Cully Stimson

I delay my return to the barber's shop for another day in order to respond to this week's news that Charles D. "Cully" Stimson, U.S. "Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs," complained about lawyers representing men that the U.S. military has detained for years without trial under shifting justifications, regimens, and charges.

On Thursday, Stimson told Federal News Radio, a Washington, D.C., station aimed at government employees ("unprompted," as the Washington Post noted):

Actually you know I think the news story that you're really going to start seeing in the next couple of weeks is this: As a result of a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request through a major news organization, somebody asked, "Who are the lawyers around this country representing detainees down there," and you know what, it's shocking. . . .

I think, quite honestly, when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.
According to the New York Times, the FOIA request Stimson referred to came from Monica Crowley, a latter-day Nixon hand with a syndicated radio show. Robert Pollock on the Wall Street Journal editorial page picked up the same information on Friday.

Are these independent events? Crowley made herself unwelcome at the Journal by plagiarizing an essay for the paper in 1998, so Pollock was unlikely to have picked up his information from her. Instead, Pollock wrote, "A senior U.S. official I spoke to speculates that this information might cause something of a scandal..." That's the exact same argument Stimson was making on the radio. Could this "senior U.S. official" be Stimson himself?

Certainly Stimson's on-air huffing about a FOIA request is a smokescreen for his attempt to push information into the public discourse and make it seem like a major revelation. In fact, most of the attorneys working on Guantanamo detainee cases have been vocal about their work since the men and boys they've represented have been silenced.

Stimson is entitled to his opinion that the worst the terrorists did in 2001 was to "hit [corporate CEOs'] bottom line," narrow as that makes him seem. And he deserves the freedom to reinforce the hypocrisy of the administration he works for; as Jonathan Adler pointed out on the Volokh Conspiracy:
When left-leaning activist groups attacked administration judicial or executive nominees on the grounds some had worked for unsavory clients, the administration correctly responded that it is wrong to attribute a client's position to his or her attorney, and that nominees should be judged upon their professional qualifications, rather than the political appeal or moral caliber of their former client base.
In fact, representing people accused of serious crimes is a deeper pillar of our justice system than representing causes or corporations. As a lawyer and a government official, Stimson should understand that. Some of those lawyers are making his job harder, but that's because his basic tasks were unconstitutional and untenable to begin with. Trying to stir up corporate America to boycott effective attorneys is both foolish and unethical.

Back in October, when the Publican candidate for governor of Massachusetts tried to use the same complaint against her Democratic opponent (before losing by more than twenty percentage points), I posted Josiah Quincy, Jr.'s statement that all accused deserved legal counsel. Quincy wrote back in 1770 after he was appointed to defend the soldiers in the Boston Massacre and another unpopular murder defendant. At that time, this legal principle was just becoming established. Since then, it's become a bedrock for American justice. Stimson apparently needs a refresher in that legal history.

In addition, Stimson might consider two of the complaints about the British sovereign that the Continental Congress listed in the Declaration of Independence:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

Friday, January 12, 2007

Notes from John Adams

And now a break from the important topic of hair and wigs for word about a couple of regional events.

I finally visited the “John Adams Unbound” exhibit at the Boston Public Library yesterday, having written about it on Boston 1775 back in September. It’s a terrific exhibit for both bibliophiles and history fans, and will remain open to the public (for free!) through March. Adams’s entire collection of books is on display, either in tall shelves or cabinets. The cabinets are organized around the reasons that Adams himself wrote out to justify spending so much money on books (as if that needs justifying): Fame, Clients, God, Country, &c.

Some steps to consider before you go:

  • You can download an audio tour of the exhibit and put it on an MP3 player before heading out. This tour complements rather than simply duplicates the exhibit’s labels. It’s more appropriate than what I had playing on my iPod: Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Twistin’ Goin’ On.”
  • The BPL has also given over smaller display rooms to other Adams-related exhibits: some of his letters, engravings of his contemporaries, and photographs of his prominent descendants. These are worth seeking out if you’re waiting for a book or friend, but not nearly as impressive as the main collection.
  • Not related to Adams but lots of fun and well worth the climb upstairs is an exhibit of popular books printed in London in the early 1700s, part of a donor’s collection of material related to Daniel Defoe. Tales of highwaymen, shipwrecked sailors, plagues, trips to the Moon, personal and political arguments, &c., &c.! Look for the signs pointing to “Crooks, Rogues, and Maids Less Than Virtuous.” Download a PDF brochure before going if you want ’cause I didn’t find any copies there. This exhibit runs through April.
Back to John Adams’s library. Many of the books in the display cases include his own comments on what he read. And most of those notes seem to be disagreements with the authors, sometimes vociferous (e.g., “Mad!”). In fact, I suspect that the best way to get Adams to say something was to state the opposite proposition and wait for him to argue. Among the authors he argued with most was Mary Wollstonecraft.

Some particularly notable items on display:
  • Paul Revere’s map of the Boston Massacre scene, probably prepared for the criminal trials of 1770. This overhead view of King Street shows the locations of the soldiers and most of the shooting victims, as well as local shops and homes. Seeing items like this on display makes me mutter, “Want it...Want it...Got it...” (The guards at the Gardner Museum love that.)
  • Adams had a copy of the Koran, too, in a translation published for Isaiah Thomas.
  • The earliest acquisition date of any book in Adams’s collection is an edition of Cicero he got in early 1750. Look here for an image of his signature on the title page. What this photo doesn't show is how Adams also wrote his name on the opposite page—twice. Once in BIG letters, and once as “John Adams His Book.” He was only fifteen at the time, and obviously really excited about owning this book.

Meet Isaiah Thomas at the AAS, 19 Jan 2007

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester sends word of a public program featuring first-person portrayals of three social reformers, including Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), one of Boston's radical Revolutionary printers, a leading popular publisher of the early republic, and founder of the AAS.

The event particulars:

Rabble Rousers and Reformers
A showcase of historical one-person shows for schools, historical societies, and professional associations

Friday, 19 January 2007 (snow date: 26 January)
3:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Goddard-Daniels House, 190 Salisbury Street in Worcester (cater-corner across the street from the AAS library)

Free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.
Also on the bill are depictions of Abby Kelley Foster (1811-1887), an Abolitionist and women’s-rights activist, and John B. Gough (1817-1886), a temperance advocate. The overall event is presented by the AAS and the New England History Teachers Association.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What Wigs Said About Professions

In the 1700s, a gentleman’s white wig not only told other gentlemen that he was a gentleman, it could also signify what kind of gentleman he was. There were general styles worn by businessmen and planters, but there were also particular styles linked to professions.

Doctors, for example, wore a “physick’s wig,” which Karin Calvert says “had a woolly, teased appearance known as a natty bob.” In 1775 the British magazine Connoisseur said, “a physician would seem ridiculous prescribing in a bag-wig,” a type with a queue or ponytail at the rear in a cloth bag worn by laymen. Examples can be seen in portraits of Dr. John Lanzalotti and Dr. John Ash, and this satirical print from 1784. John S. Copley’s portrait of Dr. Silvester Gardiner seems to show a neater variation, perhaps reflecting his retirement from active medicine.

Another specialized subset was the “parson’s wig,” suitable for ministers and characterized by its “rows of neat curls.” An early-1700s version appears in this portrait of the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather by Peter Pelham, the best engraver to work in Boston in that century (and, for a short time, J. S. Copley’s stepfather). Boston's ministers in the pre-Revolutionary period wore variations on this style: Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew; Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy; Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr.; and Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles.

During the Revolution, a French visitor to Boston said of the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper:

He writes sprightly verses, and carries certainly much cleverness under the immense wig of a clergyman, which he wears bigger and more heavily powdered than any of his brethren.
The same style was used by men in another learned profession, the schoolmaster. A former student at Master John Tileston’s Writing School recalled that he “wore his wig, however, to the last, and never appeared at school without it. The pattern was the same that clergymen wore, and the engravings of Dr. [George] Whitefield and Dr. Samuel Cooper, will give an exact idea of it.”

The legal profession is the only one in which people still wear eighteenth-century-style white wigs, at least in many parts of the British Commonwealth. Different shapes distinguished judges, barristers, and solicitors. (In Massachusetts, the lawyers grouped by the Boston bar as “barristers” and “solicitors” did the same legal tasks; the first group were simply more senior.) Copley painted Samuel Quincy, the province’s Solicitor General and thus a leading attorney, in a barrister’s wig. The less skilled (and therefore less expensive) artist Benjamin Blyth produced the first portrait of John Adams in similar headgear.

Of course, a gentleman could choose whatever style within particular groupings he thought would best fit his face, fashion sense, and budget. And some men, such as Boston's Dr. Joseph Warren and George Washington, wore their own hair with a dusting of white powder.

(There were also specific types of wigs for footmen, coachmen, and other servants, but those demonstrated the genteel taste and wealth of the wearers’ employers, not the wearers themselves.)

I have to admit my eye for the differences among groups of wigs isn’t well developed. It feels like when I was a boy and my best friends could identify different makes of car from blocks away, but I hadn’t learned the distinctions. ("That's a, um, blue car?") In the eighteenth century men could probably spot and grasp the difference between a wig with two side-curls versus one with three the same way my mom knew the difference between a three-hole Buick and a four-hole Buick.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What Wigs Said About Class and Values

Fun but questionable podcasts aside, I'm still struggling with the most basic question about the elaborately coiffed white wigs worn by gentlemen in eighteenth-century western society, including those of colonial Boston. Namely:

Why?
What benefit was there in shaving one's head and wearing a hot, heavy, itchy wig? Why go to all that trouble? Or, if one chose to wear one's own hair like George Washington, why replicate the same look by wearing white powder? If wigs had any practical purpose, why was the custom basically confined to that century? And if they were a matter of fashion, why did gentlemen think a white wig made them look good?

Here are helpful remarks on wigs from Karin Calvert's essay “The Function of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America,” published in Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert.
Craftsmen, as men who worked with their hands, usually appeared in their own hair regardless of their social position. . . . As a general rule, a wig carried more prestige than one’s own hair, and a powdered wig more than a natural-colored one, all of which meant that the necessary grooming was a messy and tedious process.

First the hair of the wig had to be smeared with pomatum, a grease made of animal fat, then teased or curled with a hot iron and rolled in papers, rubbed with more pomatum, positioned firmly on the head of the wearer, and blown with powder from a small tube. The powder could consist of flour, white earth, kaolin, or a mixture of starch and plaster of paris. Whatever the components, the powder and pomatum solidified to the point that regrooming was not necessary for some time, though a fresh dusting of powder was applied at each wearing.

An ill-fitting wig failed one of the primary rules of gentility in the eighteenth century, which was to make artifice seem completely natural and the difficult appear effortless. . . . Any sudden movement, such as a sneeze or a jerk of the head, could send flying a shower of loose powder. A dusting of powder on the shoulders betrayed the socially inept, for a true gentleman knew how to walk, turn, and bow with fluid grace.
In other words, the whole point of a gentleman's wig was that it was hard. A good powdered wig was expensive, it required other people's labor, it needed ongoing upkeep, and it demanded graceful deployment. By wearing one, therefore, a gentleman showed that he really cared about making a good appearance and could carry it off.

Of course, wig symbolism also shifted with the fashion. Michael Kwass's article "Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France" traces how the marketing of wigs in France evolved from the reign of the prematurely bald Louis XIV to the republican Revolution. Wigmakers adapted their arguments for wearing wigs according to the values that gentlemen were supposed to espouse in each period, though the bottom line remained the same. For instance, when gentlemen were supposed to value utilitarian convenience over luxury:
eighteenth-century commentators asserted that wearing someone else's hair was far more convenient than caring for one's own. "The convenience of wigs has made wearing them a nearly universal custom," observed classicist and teacher Jean Deguerle. If Deguerle failed to mention why he thought wigs were so convenient, the Encyclopédie méthodique explained that wigs possessed several advantages over natural hair, "one of the greatest of which is to relieve men of daily cares." In an age when civility manuals prescribed the perpetual cleaning, combing, and styling of hair, it was easier to have your head shaved and don a wig than to groom your own hair, particularly when your local wigmaker could service your wig for a small fee.
Likewise, when conforming to "nature" became a buzzword, wigmakers advertised that they offered the most natural false hair.

Given all that a good wig symbolized, attacking a man's wig became a way to attack his claims to genteel status. Here's a poem that Benjamin Church Jr., the future physician, wrote about his Harvard tutor:
An ugly Monster, he in Sight appears,
Form’d so by Nature not deform’d by Years:
His matted Wig of piss-burnt horse-hair made,
Scarce covers half his greasy shining Head.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"The Fashionable Wig" from Williamsburg

The most amusing of the Colonial Williamsburg’s “Past and Present” podcasts that I’ve heard so far is “The Fashionable Wig,” Lloyd Dobyns’s interview with wigmaker Terry Lyons.

I think Dobyns tends to seek a slightly sentimental picture of the past represented in Williamsburg, perhaps reflecting the attitude of many historical tourists. And in this conversation Lyons keeps matter-of-factly blowing up his assumptions that the people of the eighteenth century shared the same tastes and priorities we have, just in a more picturesque fashion. As she should.

When you research another culture deeply, I think, you eventually find yourself wondering, “What were they thinking?” If you never ask that question, you haven’t dug deeply enough yet. And for Dobyns that query seems to arise as he realizes the full extent of the notion that the height of fashion for gentlemen—and even for some ladies and older boys—was to shave one’s head and wear an elaborately shaped wig. (Boston 1775 will explore the hair of women and children later in the week.)

Among Lyons’s remarks:

Five percent of Williamsburg—of Virginia—was wearing wigs, but of course that major concentration was in the capital city. And so there were anywhere from one to nine wigmakers there at any one time. And so business was quite brisk, but primarily in the capital city.
For a fashionable and wealthy gentleman:
You would have wigs for evening wear, for everyday wear, for business, for riding. You’d just have a range of them as you’d have a range of clothing. . . . the shaving of the head gave a better fit. And so you would go to bed at night, remove your wig, your wife would remove her wig; you’d both look the same.
And the wigs in one’s collection might vary in color:
You’ll find that chestnut was considered a fashionable color. Brown for men. But the paler hairs were used for evening wear, for formal wear. The paler hair showed better by candlelight. But if you only had a dark wig or dark hair like Mr. [George] Washington, then it could be powdered. But then, of course, you had to step from the ballroom to the powder room to have the hair re-powdered with a clothing brush; that’s what the powder room was for.
I believe that last remark is mistaken, however. A Colonial Williamsburg publication states the same derivation, but according to Merriam-Webster’s the phrase “powder room” first appeared in print in 1937, well after the heyday of the powdered wig. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase from 1941. No doubt the phrase really referred to the 20th-century female habit of applying powder to one’s face—because of course we mustn’t refer to anything else that goes on in that room. (The OED does define “powder closet” as being a room where wigs are powdered—but offers no citation earlier than the 1900s.)

More from Colonial Williamsburg: a webpage with photos on the wigmaker’s shop, a booklet on the trade, and the transcript of "The Fashionable Wig" podcast. TOMORROW: What gentleman’s wigs signified.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Bad Hair Week at Boston 1775

Longtime Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell has sent a request: remarks about wigs and hair styles in Revolutionary America.

That's a topic I've been trying to figure out, too, but still don't understand. Wearing wigs was so much part of ordinary life for gentlemen of the late eighteenth century that they don't seem to have written much about it in their letters and diaries, and it's so far from our daily life that it's hard for us (or at least for me) to get my head around. So for the next few days I'll post some snips about the hair of Revolutionary Boston, and perhaps by the end of the week they'll add up to something.

But first, lest anyone think that hair is a topic of little significance, I'll take a day to discuss what people have written about the late Saddam Hussein's hair color, and how it relates to public image and historical evidence. After masked men hanged the former Iraqi dictator last month, the New York Times's obituary included this remark:

Mr. Hussein tried to maintain strict control of his own image. He dyed his hair black and refused to wear his reading glasses in public, according to interviews with exiles published in The Atlantic Monthly in March 2002.
I'd hoped that in the last five years the Times had learned not to reprint everything that Iraqi exiles have said about Saddam Hussein without verifying it. Oppressive dictators always attract belittling rumors, and Saddam was a most oppressive dictator.

It's true that the government-controlled Iraqi media rarely showed Saddam wearing glasses before a TV appearance in early 2003. Of course, every American president has worn reading glasses as well, and few of them, including the current office-holder, have worn their glasses at most public ceremonies. George Washington made a big deal of hauling out his eyeglasses during a talk to discontented army officers in March 1783, saying, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." Few of those officers had ever seen Washington wear glasses before; they were startled and touched by the sight, and it won their sympathy.

Given that evidence, we might also say, “Washington tried to maintain strict control of his own image. He powdered his hair white and refused to wear his reading glasses in public.” But all politicians try to control their public image. The problem with Saddam wasn’t that he tried as well; it was the murderous way that he took and kept power. Nevertheless, by whispering that Saddam secretly dyed his hair, his enemies in exile implied that he was deceptive and weak.

By 2001, Iraqi government photographs showed that the dictator's moustache had turned gray, yet his hair and eyebrows remained dark. Some people apparently saw that as a sign that he was using hair dye—though it was never clear why he'd be so selective about applying it. Once the Atlantic story ran, the idea that Saddam dyed his hair became accepted wisdom. Even George Galloway, the British MP who opposed the 1990s sanctions and remains caught up in the oil-for-food diversions scandal, wrote, "Saddam Hussein raised a dyed black eyebrow" in the Guardian in 2002.

The U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq sent Saddam into hiding for several months. In August 2003, the U.S. military in Iraq issued digitally altered photos intended to show what it expected him to look like now that he had stopped dyeing his hair and moustache. Those images have been removed from dot-mil websites now, of course, but remain visible at archive.org. The next month the Sunday Mirror reflected the U.S. military's expectation by stating that Saddam "has apparently run out of black hair-dye and will almost certainly have white hair."

Well, he didn't.

The photograph above is of course one of the famous series issued by the U.S. military just after it captured Saddam in Dec 2003 (nine months after Donald Rumsfeld complained that the Iraqi government had violated the Geneva Convention by releasing images of American POWs). It shows the fugitive's hair as nearly black, and his moustache and beard as a mix of black, gray, and white.

Where, some folks wondered, had Saddam gotten hair dye while hiding in a "spider hole"? If he'd tried to disguise himself by growing long hair and a beard, why would he have continued to dye his hair? The more conspiracy-minded took that man's dark hair as a sign that he wasn't actually Saddam, or that he'd been captured a significant time before and that the U.S. military had dyed his hair so he'd be more recognizable.

I don't think the explanation needs to be that complex. I wonder if Saddam Hussein actually needed much hair dye to begin with. He wouldn't have been the only man whose moustache and hair have different amounts of gray. What evidence do we really have that Saddam dyed his hair? There are those anonymous Iraqi exiles of 2002, of course—an uncertain source we can clearly no longer rely on. More recently, while running illicit snapshots of Saddam changing clothes in 2005, the U.K.'s Sun newspaper reported that Saddam's "endless vanity ensures he's still allowed to dye his hair black." [My own vanity ensures me no privileges at all; clearly it's not endless enough.]

What was the tabloid's source for such inside information? It didn't say. Did Saddam's American jailers ever confirm the statement? Not to my knowledge. Is this the same Sun that also reported, "He no longer has his beloved hair dye" as Saddam appeared for his first trial with dark hair? The same Sun whose Deputy Health Editor saw Saddam's "thick and glossy" hair at that trial as a sign of his true health rather than chemical enhancement? Yes, indeed.

In fact, from 2001 to 2006 Saddam Hussein's follicle image remained consistent: dark hair and eyebrows, mottled gray moustache and (later) beard. In power, in hiding, in court—the basic coloring of his hair didn't change. Maybe Saddam managed that with dye, but it seems more likely that this is a case of people wishfully seeking a sign of his weakness. Which shows how much symbolic meaning we humans can weave into hair.