Hair Powder Tax

One of the more obscure sources of information for family historians that are looking specifically at the 18th century is hair powder certificates. William Pitt the Younger was responsible for a whole series of taxes at the end of the 18th century, including the first income tax, either directly or indirectly to help fund the expensive war with Napoleonic France. The introduction of a tax on hair powder was one such measure.

Leaving off powder, or, a frugal family saving the guinea. A satire on the hair powder tax.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library – Leaving off Powder

 

Individuals who used hair powder were required to purchase a certificate from their local Justice of the Peace for which they were charged one guinea.  The list of those that had paid was lodged at the local Quarter Session court and a copy of the list affixed to the door of the parish church by the parish constable. It was common practice also, to fine those who did not pay this tax.

The information included in the list will provide a date, a parish, a list of names and a description being usually the relationship to the head of the household or another role such as servant. So, like a census return, it is possible to piece together some familial relationships.

The town before you, or, Welch wigs, or, Whimsicallities, or, How to save the tax on hair powder. (Lewis Walpole Library)
The town before you, or, Welch wigs, or, Whimsicallities, or, How to save the tax on hair powder. (Lewis Walpole Library)

 

The lists however will of course be much less complete than a census because most people were not of a status to wear wigs or hair powder and there were also many exemptions such as clergymen with an income of under £100 a year, non-commissioned officers, militia, mariners, officers in the navy below commander and many others. One payment was acceptable for a group of servants in one household.

Marie Antoinette wearing the distinctive pouf style coiffure: her own natural hair is extended on the top with an artificial hairpiece.
Marie Antoinette wearing the distinctive pouf style coiffure: her own natural hair is extended on the top with an artificial hairpiece.

Contrary to popular belief women did not wear wigs, but simply had the equivalent of today’s hair extensions added to their existing hair. Women mainly powdered their hair grey or blueish grey and from the 1770’s it was never bright white like men. Wig powder itself was made from finely ground starch to which was added lavender, jasmine, roses and scented with orange flower and was occasionally coloured violet, blue, pink or yellow, but was most often used as off-white.

Wigs all the rage, or a debate on the baldness of the times.
Courtesy of the British Museum

In 1869 the Act was repealed as less than 1,000 people were by that time wearing wigs – maybe it was the cost of paying such a large amount of duty that led people to change their appearance. Certainly, a more natural hairstyle was adopted by fashionable young gentlemen in Regency England.

It is still possible today to find records around the country of hair powder certificates if you contact the relevant archives.

An example of a hair powder duty certificate from 1795
An example of a certificate
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8 thoughts on “Hair Powder Tax

  1. Richard Fuller

    I have 2 original Hair Powder certificates, one from 1795 and 1 from 1796. Are they worth anything??

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    1. All Things Georgian

      Unfortunately we really couldn’t comment as to their financial value you would need to ask someone who specializes in antiques. In terms of social history they are of immense value; so if they have limited financial value it might be worth giving them on loan to your local archives. Let us know how you get on as we and our readers would love to know. Hope this helps

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  2. Next summer, 2015, we are doing an exhibition called “Tithes, Taxes and Old Southam Town” and have a list of the persons who paid their wig tax in 1795 in Southam, Warwickshire. We would love to have permission to include some of your information in the exhibition under your name.

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    1. All Things Georgian

      Permission granted with pleasure; how exciting, please let us know nearer the time and we’d be more than happy to help publicize the exhibition. 🙂

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