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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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.


Elektratig said...

I just want to let you know that I'm enjoying your wig/hair posts tremendously. Your "mullet" observation is spot on -- yech!

Becky said...

My kids (ages 6, 7-1/2, and 9) have been enjoying and benefitting from your series on hair and wigs, as we're now studying the Revolution. Middle child wants a cocked hat for his next birthday, he says, but so far shows no interest in growing out his hair.

We may get the chance to visit friends in Boston in the autumn, so the kids are hoping to see some of the paintings in real life ("Washington Crossing the Delaware" on their first/last trip to NY made quite the impression).

Thanks again.

Thanks again

J. L. Bell said...

Well, at least I saved your middle child from shaving his head!

Boston's Revolutionary paintings are mostly portraits of prominent locals, not the dramatic paintings of historical events like "Washington Crossing the Delaware." But they have the advantage of being painted from life, not recreated for dramatic effect after most of the people involved had died.

Anonymous said...

The Western brothers:

remind me of the Wolff brothers from "The Naked Brothers Band":

J. L. Bell said...

For quick clicking:

Western brothers.

Naked Brothers.