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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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.

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