Sweet dreams: meddlesome mice and 1770s ‘big’ hair

The extravaganza, or, The mountain head dress of 1776. Lewis Walpole Library
The extravaganza, or, The mountain head dress of 1776.
Lewis Walpole Library

We’re all aware of the elaborate ladies’ hairstyles of the Georgian period, and the chance of a little visitor or two becoming lodged inside them. Fleas yes, we knew that was a possibility, but we’ll freely admit that getting mice inside your hair whilst sleeping was not one of the dangers of living in Georgian Britain that had ever occurred to us. However, according to the Ipswich Journal (25th January 1777) and the Society of Arts, it was a constant and worrying hazard.

The many melancholy accidents that have lately happened in consequence of mice getting into ladies hair in the night time, induced the society of arts, at their last meeting, to offer a premium to the person who should invent the neatest and most useful bed-side mouse-trap.

Well, indeed! We can foresee all kinds of further melancholy accidents ensuing here when a recently woken lady fumbles around, completely forgetting she’d set a trap for her little night-time companions…

The following uncommon circumstance is authentic. On Monday morning, about three o’clock, the Lady of a well-known Gentleman, whose name we are desired not to publish, waked suddenly in a fright, and screaming out aloud, also waked her husband. He desired to know the reason of her being thus alarmed, when she told him, she felt something in her hair behind alive. On searching, a poor innocent mouse was found, who, it is supposed was invited there by the amazing quantity of powder and pomatum. The mouse made its escape, and no dangerous consequences ensued; which was very fortunate for the Lady, as she is very far advanced in her pregnancy.

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 18th March 1773

Oh heigh oh, or, A view of the back settlements. Lewis Walpole Library
Oh heigh oh, or, A view of the back settlements.
Lewis Walpole Library

Mr Moses Martingo, a silversmith from New Bond-street, came to the rescue. He invented a silver trap (unfortunately the newspaper advertisement doesn’t say how it differed from a normal trap, other than obviously looking a little prettier) and began to sell these for three guineas a pop. He didn’t stop there though, oh no…

He also sells night-caps, made of silver wire, as flexible as gauze, and yet so strong that no mouse, or even rat, can gnaw thro’ them. The present demand for these articles is incredible, Mr Martingo employing no less than 40 hands in that branch only. The caps if made of plain silver wire, are sold at 3 guineas each, but the ton have them of gilt wire, from six guineas to ten.

Nightcaps made of stiffened linen were worn to protect lady’s coiffures, which could last many weeks. Perhaps Mr Martingo and the Society of Arts felt that these were not protection enough against the nocturnal activities of nibbling little rodents?

Lewis Walpole Library
Lewis Walpole Library

OK, hands up. We believe the 1777 advert is a fake and poking fun of the elaborate hairstyles of the day but if there really was a Mr Martingo, then fair play to him for cashing in on the fashion. So, Georgian fact or Georgian fiction? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sources not mentioned above:

Cambridge Sentinel, Volume XXXI, No. 29, 18th July 1936

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