A Profile on Perukes

This post refers to men’s fashion of the 18th century. Please see the footnote below regarding gender terminology.

George Washington
George Washington,
au naturel

Everyone — at least in the US — recognizes the subject of the portrait on the right as George Washington, first United States president. Everyone — who hasn’t spent time researching this because they have real hobbies — assumes he’s wearing a white wig because of the frothy hairstyle and the time period. Everyone — including me from a few minutes ago, before I learned this — is wrong. (Thanks, Hollywood!) 

Wigs were a big deal beginning in the 17th century. This fashion held until about 1800, which is a very long time for a trend to run its course. What happened in the intervening years? And what made all those men flip their wigs?

As Bald as a Billiard Ball

Heredity and/or other biological conditions, such as auto-immune diseases and the effects of stress on our hormones, cause hair loss. However, these are not the reasons for the wig-wearing craze that began in the 17th century. The sores and hair loss associated with widespread syphilis accelerated the need to cover up.

Summary on syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Hair loss and sores were only two of the awful symptoms. Though sheaths, or condoms, were available, not enough men wore them, stoking an epidemic in Europe greater than the spread of the Black Death. Syphilis is caused by a specific bacteria and is treated today with antibiotics.

Big Wigs

The powdered wig — referred to historically as a peruke or periwig — became a fashion trend when two vain 17th century kings lost the battle with their hair at a young age:

King Louis XIV of France experienced hair loss at the early age of 17, and he hired 48 wigmakers to help combat his thinning locks. His English cousin, King Charles II, began wearing wigs a few years later, when his hair began to prematurely grey — both conditions being syphilitic signals.

The Rise and Fall of the Powdered Wig
Louis XIV
King Louis XIV and his massive wig
Hermès Vintage Kelly Bag
Hermès Vintage Kelly Bag (approx. $10,000) made famous by Princess Grace Kelly.

Courtiers and noblemen followed their king’s styles, starting a fashion trend that ultimately spread to the merchant class as a symbol of wealth. A single, extravagant wig might cost 25 shillings, or the weekly wage of a laborer. However, men spent upwards of 800 shillings on them yearly. Calculated for inflation, this amount was on par with one of today’s iconic, vintage handbags.

Wigging Out

Hairdresser
A hairdresser powdering a wig.

Perukes were made from horse, goat, sheep, or human hair. Day to day maintenance involved powdering with cornstarch scented with orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender [Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s] to cover odors and filth. Special combs and pomades were used to maintain the wig’s shape.

Occasionally wigs needed delousing. While this may sound objectionable to today’s reader, it was better than the alternative, which was regular infestations of lice in one’s natural hair. Wigs solved this problem because a shaved head made wigs fit properly and a lousy place for lice to live (pun intended, of course). A wigmaker took care of the delousing for their patrons by boiling and nitpicking the wig.

Rockin’ the Rococo

Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather, 1700.

In the beginning of the wig craze, the longer and fuller the wig, the better. Like most fashions, this changed over time. 

Wig fashion at the beginning of the 18th century was shoulder-length and full. 

Side-rolls with a side of side-eye

By the mid-18th century, buckled side-rolls were popular with nobility and soldiers.

Macaronis preferred wigs with the height and lavishness of the French court.

"What! Is this my son Tom?", a June 24th 1774 caricature on extreme "Macaroni" fashions of the 1770s. "Honest farmer" with adult son who has large, elaborate hairstyle and stylish clothes.
This macaroni is living his best life.

Little known fact: the song “Yankee Doodle” pre-dates the American Revolution by a good 15 – 20 years. A British military surgeon wrote the song to “mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees’ with whom they served in the French and Indian War.” [Yankee Doodle]

Colonel James Hamilton
Pink hair, don’t care.

By the time the Revolution came to Concord, men in America began switching to powdering their hair instead of wearing wigs. In fact, George Washington didn’t wear wigs. He pomaded and powdered his red hair. (This guy over here is Colonel James Hamilton and he prefers pink, a color worn by all genders in the 18th century.)

Splitting Hairs

Ship’s Steward
Bet he’s not reaching for a wig inside his jacket.

Wigs became less popular in the latter half of the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, leading up to the American and French revolutions, philosophers questioned leadership based on the circumstances of one’s birth versus the new theory of democracy. Wigs, equated with the nobility, fell out of fashion.

British men were the last to stop wearing wigs. In Britain, the Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795 meant to subsidize wars with France brought the fashion trend to an end. The tax cost wig-wearers one guinea.

According to author Jenny Uglow, those who chose to pay the guinea hair powder tax were nicknamed “guinea-pigs” by reformist Whigs who chose instead to cut their hair short (the “French” cut) and go without a wig as an expression of solidarity with the French.

Yankee Doodle

Footnote on Gender:

Terminology regarding gender in 18th century American and British cultures, as recorded in history, was limited to the binary. Though the gender spectrum exists across cultures and throughout history — including American and British cultures of the time, it did not become a discourse with distinct terminology until the 1950s. These posts reflect binary gender and those who identified in the record as that gender. If I’ve made an error, I welcome feedback as an opportunity to learn.

Sources:

18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques

Duty on Hair Powder Act 1795

Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s

The Rise and Fall of the Powdered Wig

The Rise of the Wig

Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?

Yankee Doodle

Images:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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Inventing 18th Century Spectacles

“As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia
—Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. [1]

Primate wearing snazzy spectacles. Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021.

For humans, the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) have increased alongside the invention of the printing press and later the political fallout of the Reformation. 

As literacy rates rose, so did the need for corrective lenses. Not that literacy, or rather education, is bad for the eyes—genes and nutrition also play a role. However, close work such as reading or computer use puts a strain on the eyes, contributing to vision problems.

It’s a good thing lenses and the way we employ them have advanced over the years.

Early Lenses

The magnifying glass came about a long time ago. Using convex lenses whose edges curve outward, they are used to magnify an object or focus light to ignite a fire. In 424 BCE, Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, a character did just that.

Reading Stone. Source: Pexels

The next advancement came in 1000 CE. Quartz, beryl, or glass shaped like a stone and polished were used as reading stones. Placing these on top of text magnified letters. 

Venetian glassmakers in the 13th century produced the first spectacles. By sending these along the Silk Road, among other Italian items to sell, they brought vision correction to Asia. Unlike modern eyeglasses, these spectacles were heavy and very breakable.

Better Spectacles

Pince-nez. Source: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin , Public Domain.

Spectacles changed very little for the next 500 years. It took until the 18th century with the prevalence of cheap newspapers and more opportunities for non-clergy to be educated, for Europeans to finally demand better and more stylish options.

Around 1700, lenses were being made round and large, staying on by pinching the nose. The French called them pince-nez

By 1730, design rapidly changed when Edward Scarlett (1688-1743), optician to King George, produced spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms’. [2] His spectacles could be purchased over the counter, or ground to one’s specifications. In fact, he used a set of lenses with different focal lengths to fit the right spectacles to the customer.

Whalebone spectacles. Source: College of Optometrists.

Frames of this era were typically made from whalebone, tortoiseshell, or horn. These materials were both strong and flexible.

Wig Spectacles. Source: College of Optometrists.

During the Georgian era, when men commonly worn wigs, wig spectacles came into fashion. These frames were double-hinged, jointed on the sides meant to be worn over a wig. The shape of the frame didn’t fit the head without one.

Martin’s Margins. Source: National Museum of American History.

By the middle of the 18th century, Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) invented the stylish Martin’s Margins. These were silver-framed with spring-loaded arms to stay on better, and round lenses rimmed with dark horn or tortoiseshell to help protect the eye from sunlight.

Bifocals. Source: College of Optometrists.

While Benjamin Franklin is often praised for the invention of the bifocal around 1760, they were in fact being produced in London at this time. His half split lenses, half for distance and the other half for close work. Bifocals like Franklin’s were very important to artists and craftsmen who needed the range for their work.

Lorgnettes. Source: Public Domain.

Lorgnettes came along in the last quarter of the 18th century. They were spectacles one held in front of the face with a handle that doubled as its case. To fit, the bridge of the nose folded at a hinge to slip inside the handle. They became wildly popular with theatre-goers. These are closely related to the quizzing glass in that they were a lens held by a handle, but quizzing glasses were fancier, more like jewelry pieces. They came a little later, at the dawn of the 19th century.

Sunglasses

Inuit Eyewear. Source: Public Domain.

Eyewear protecting eyes from bright sunlight goes all the way back to prehistory with the Inuit and their walrus ivory “glasses” which contained no glass at all. They fit like goggles against the eyes with slits in the middle to reduce the sun’s glare. They also helped in focusing the eyes.

Venetian Sunglasses. Source: College of Optometrists.

Some credit James Ayscough (1720-1759) with the use of modern tinted lenses for protection against sunlight, but that wasn’t his goal. He was experimenting with blue and green lenses for corrective purposes. It was the Venetians, again, who designed and used spectacles to protect the eyes from sunlight. They made green-tinted sunglasses, which had no UV protection for use against the bright glint of sunlight on water.

In Case You’re Wondering

It wasn’t until the 19th century that ophthalmologists performed eye exams. Before then, a lens-grinder offered lenses with varying focal lengths to choose from.


Footnote:

  1. What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses? Jacewicz, Natalie. “What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses?” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/07/484835077/what-did-nearsighted-humans-do-before-glasses.

  2. What a spectacle! https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/what-a-spectacle/

Sources:

“The Evolution of Sunglasses – Google Arts & Culture.” Google. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/the-evolution-of-sunglasses/AwICKXCQPV3VKg?hl=en.

Handley, Neil. “Eighteenth Century Spectacles.” College of Optometrists – Professional body for optometrists. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/museum/online-exhibitions/virtual-spectacles-gallery/eighteenth-century-spectacles.html.

Magnifying Glass, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnifying_glass.

Reading Stones, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_stone.

“Spectacles.” National Museum of American History. Accessed May 16, 2021. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1058664.

What a Spectacle! https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/what-a-spectacle/.

What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses? Jacewicz, Natalie. “What Did Nearsighted Humans Do Before Glasses?” NPR. NPR, July 7, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/07/484835077/what-did-nearsighted-humans-do-before-glasses

Images:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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