Monday, June 30, 2014

The Demise of the Powdered Wig, 1795

by Mike Rendell

When my ancestor went up to London for six weeks in the 1780's, he paid the barber to give him a whole-head shave every day. 42 shaves cost eighteen shillings - just over a dollar - and  shaving involved the entire head because my ancestor wore a wig. These hot-beds of lice and insect life would have itched constantly, but shaving would have reduced the irritation and kept the scalp clean. I rather like the image of a barber's shop drawn by Richard Newton  towards the  turn of the century. It is called 'Sketches in a Shaving Shop'

Different professions had evolved their own style of wig - different ones for the clergy, the army, the judiciary and so on. Shortly after the coronation of King George III, William Hogarth brought out a satirical print implying that the choice of wig was a branch of science.

Normally I do not like Hogarth - he is a trifle too moralistic for my liking, but here he is parodying contemporary pseudo-scientific treatises and manuals. It is entitled the “Five Orders of Perriwigs…” and shows ‘Episcopal or Parsonic’ as well as ‘Old Peer-ian or Aldermanic’, ‘Lexonic”, and ‘Composite or Half Natural’ and ‘Queerinthian.’ Lots of in-jokes and digs at  contemporary scientific discoveries – nice one, Billy-boy!

The one thing which was constant was the need to apply powder to the wig - this was a fashion copied from the French. Gentlemen generally wore white powder, ladies might have theirs a slightly bluish white. The powder was often highly toxic since it was made from white lead. The wise covered their face with a conical mask while the dresser applied the dusty powder, because otherwise the ingestion of lead would have been really unpleasant, leading to nausea, dizziness, headaches, paralysis and in some cases even death.

There are many caricatures of the time showing powder being applied. I rather like this one entitled The Macarony Dressing Room. It dates from 1779 and shows the seated gentleman taking snuff while his hairdresser dusts his wig. A slave boy holds the powder. Behind him a fop closes the door with his rapier while a servant is entering, sending the tray of refreshments to the floor. Another macaroni lifts his leg away from the spillage, concerned in case he gets splashed, while a corpulent gentleman, wearing a fancy leopard print waistcoat and trousers, watches the scene unfold.

But powder disappeared from use almost overnight in 1795. The Duty on Hair Powder Act  came into force on 5th May of that year. From that date wig-wearers who wished to powder their tresses had to go to the  stamp office; fill in a form with their name; and apply for an annual certificate at a cost of one guinea (twenty-one shillings – the equivalent of perhaps £80). Various exemptions applied – for instance for poorer clergymen and certain classes of  the armed forces.The Royal Family and their servants were of course exempt from this iniquitous tax which had the effect of ruining trade for the poor periwig makers of the day. The Act was repealed in 1869, by which time fewer than a thousand annual licences were being granted – and most of them were for servants.

If there was a household consisting of more than two unmarried daughters, good old Dad could pay over his two guineas and write down the names of all his daughters to be included in the one certificate. Similarly, an employer could buy a licence for a servant, and extend it if the servant was replaced during the year.

This led to a lovely caricature by James Gillray entitled 'Leaving off powder - a frugal family saving the guinea.'

I particularly like the oleaginous French wig-maker on the left, complete with a hole in his stocking, and as usual with Gillray's portrayal of the French, shown looking like a monkey! Or Mick Jagger…

Her Ladyship, with a head as smooth as a baby’s bottom, throws up her hands in horror at the coloured monstrosity which is about to be placed on her head. In the background the glamorous daughter looks forlornly at her image in the glass, her fashionable white locks replaced with brown curls. There is an interesting contrast between the picture on the wall of  King Charles II, resplendent in his full-bottomed wig, and the young blade looking at his reflection in the mirror, his short crop no doubt feeling somewhat chilly on a May morning… Only Dad, warming himself by the fire, seems unconcerned by all the fuss: he is happy with the brown rug sitting atop his pate and he certainly isn’t about to dish out a guinea for anyone else in the household!

Clearly there must have been discussions about what other products might be used to dress a wig without incurring the powder-tax. Hence this etching by Isaac Cruikshank, also from 1795, entitled “Debating Society : (substitute for hair powder)”. Beneath the picture of the braying ass, the learned gentlemen are all shouting at once extolling the virtues of … honey, or mustard. (I think I might pass on that one!) The organizer of the debate cries out "Silence, gentlemen! To order, only ten to speak at a time...".

Within a matter of a few years, fashions changed - men's hair was often worn short in a crop or lightly curled. The towering head-dresses favoured by ladies in the 1780's (think of Georgiana in the film 'The Duchess') were never to be seen again, and ringlets came into vogue. I think I might start a campaign to Bring Back the Wig - it may have been ludicrous, but for men like me who are, how shall we say, a little lacking on top, it might be a god-send!


Mike is the author of The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman based on the family collection of diaries and memorabilia from the 18th Century. He has also published a book about the origins of the Circus Astley's Circus - the Story of an English Hussar and is about to have published a fully illustrated book  An introduction to the Georgians. He also does a regular blog on all-things-Georgian here).


  1. Brilliant! I always wondered why wigs were so popular one minute and so over the next. And the answer was tax. Obviously.


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