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VCU Archaeology

Tressed for Success: Gentility and Hair Care at the Washington Home, 1738-1760.

Director’s note: we’ve scanned a number of wig hair curlers from George Washington’s Ferry Farm, and I thought it would be useful for followers of the Virtual Curation Laboratory to know more about wig hair curlers as presented by a leading expert in this guest blog post–Bernard K. Means.

Laura J. Galke, Field Director/Small Finds Analyst

George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, Virginia

bkm_FF18CurlersJan2013.shopt

Recently, archaeologists excavating at the boyhood home of George Washington unearthed a hand-molded, white clay, wig hair curler.  Having uncovered over 200 curlers, what made this discovery unusual was that it is the single example of a hand-made (versus mold made) curler yet found at this domestic site.  It is unusual to discover such a high number of curlers from a home:  most scholars argue that curlers were used in the manufacture of wigs, not for their weekly maintenance.  So why did the Washington family invest in so many curlers?

In the years following the untimely death of George Washington’s father, Augustine, the family struggled financially.  Augustine had left the bulk of the Washington family’s plantations, his interest in the Accokeek iron mine, and enslaved laborers to his two sons from his first marriage.  George’s mother, Mary, remained a widow, and invested in strategies that allowed the family to compensate for their economic stress by demonstrating gentility in social displays of refined etiquette and dress.  These displays included social entertaining at their Fredericksburg home with libations such as tea, chocolate, and punch.  Fancy needlework implements allowed George’s sister, Betty, to exhibit her refined skills and graceful deportment.  Artifacts recovered around their home demonstrate that their apparel was fashionable and reflected their participation in gentile pursuits such as foxhunting.

As an emblem of male gentility and authority, a gentleman’s hair was a crucial component of these efforts.  George, and his three brothers Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles, each found ways to express their authority and power using their hair.  Using documentary and archaeological evidence from their Fredericksburg home, evidence exists that some of these young men pomaded and powdered their own hair while others, notably Samuel, chose to wear wigs.  The recovery of hundreds of clay wig hair curlers, a few in the home’s parlor, but concentrated in a dedicated activity area in the family’s eastern work yard (adjacent to their home), reflect the home-based maintenance of wigs by one or more of their enslaved personal servants.  Never before has such dramatic evidence for a concentrated, home-based regimen of wig and hair care been recovered.

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Furthermore, some of the clay curlers excavated from this site preserve residue from the mid-eighteenth century maintenance of wigs and hair.  Drawing on the resources of the College of William and Mary’s Applied Research Center and Virginia Commonwealth University, scanning electron microscopy/x-ray fluorescence and infrared spectroscopy were used to analyze the deposits of the excavated curlers.  The results suggest that some of the Washington family curlers retained hair powder while others suggest the use of iron hair pins.  Such analysis has never before been performed.

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The Washingtons’ social and economic aspirations were supported by this careful attention to this crucial accessory of British gentry male attire.  The intensity of wig curling tasks at this site suggests fastidious care and perhaps high maintenance wigs.  The identification of such a dedicated wig maintenance area will inform the George Washington Foundation’s recreation of the mid-eighteenth century Washington home and landscape for visitors in the coming years.

Further Reading

Durbin, Gail
1984       Wig, Hairdressing and Shaving Bygones. Shire Publications, Ltd. Aylesbury, Bucks.

Galke, Laura J.
2009       The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits.  Northeast Historical Archaeology 38:29-28.

Le Cheminant, Richard
1982       The Development of the Pipeclay Hair Curler- A Preliminary Study.  In The Archaeology of the Clay Tobacco Pipe.  VII.  More Pipes and Kilns from England.  BAR British Series 100, edited by Peter Davey.

Muraca, David, John Coombs, Phil Levy, Laura Galke, Paul Nasca, and Amy Muraca
2011       Small Finds, Space, and Social Context: Exploring Agency in Historical Archaeology.  Northeast Historical Archaeology 40:1-20.

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