The use of wigs began prior to the 18th century, but they were very much in vogue throughout the 18th century and were known as either periwigs or perukes, and remained fashionable until the advent of hair powder tax which was part of the government’s way to find more ways to increase the empty coffers, at which time their prevalence diminished, and it wouldn’t take many years for au naturel to become the fashion. The terms periwig and peruke appear to have been interchangeable terms and it’s interesting to note the decrease in size of wigs over the decades as we can see here.
To have your wig powdered was a sign of your wealth, affluence and when you read newspapers about missing persons, there was frequently a physical description of the person, but also a reference to the type of wig they were wearing as we can see below with this gentleman who was sporting a curled wig powdered.
There were several reasons for wearing wigs, apart from being a fashion accessory, hair loss being the most obvious, but they were also worn to cover scarring caused by illnesses such as syphilis.
Needless to say, wearing a wig became something of a vicious circle, you may have chosen to wear one to protect against head lice, but equally, wigs were often made from made from animal hair which could cause lice and other scalp conditions which they may not have suffered from prior to wearing it!
Wearing a wig was also a fire hazard due to the use of candles, something I have written about before, so candle light combined with the use of animal fats used for styling wigs, was a recipe for disaster.
Wigmakers and hairdressers not only benefitted from the sale of wigs, but also by selling accessories to ensure their client remained looking and smelling fragrant with the use of soaps, oils, powders and pomatums, as we can see below at Oaks’ Ornamental Hair Manufactory on Vine Street London.
We may think that grooming is a 21st century ‘thing’ but it was extremely important back in the 18th century too. If you visit a hairdressers, barbers or beauty salon today, secondary selling still takes place. Many adverts claimed that products developed by the wigmaker would not only make your wig look good, but also that their product was better than any others and that it could stop you from getting a headache or other ailments, as it was far superior to other products on the market – of course, no evidence exists to support some of their spurious claims.
Here we can see an example of a trade card for Thomas Ravenscroft, of Serle Street, London, not only did he sell all kinds of wigs, but also perfumes. From his will though, his business doesn’t appear to have been terribly successful, as he left a legacy to his wife in 1807 of just £20.
Women rarely wore wigs, as they were very much a male domain, but I have also read that women never wore wigs, however, as we can see from this advert, which appeared in the Hereford Journal, 12 September 1798, Mr Bosley could provide hair services for you having brought with him from London – ‘Ladies’ wigs, fillets, braids and all kinds of false hair’. This was only one of many adverts, so clearly there was a requirement for women’s wigs. In fact the advert above for Oaks’ appears to have been very much aimed at women.
For women the fashion for large and high hair grew during the 1770s and 80s and as we can see here in this caricature below, some were enormous towers. For women who wished to replicate anything similar to this one would probably have used what today we would call hair extensions, which, with an experienced stylist could create some amazingly high hair, but quite how realistic images as we see below were, we can only imagine, as I would have thought taking your hair that high, might actually snap your neck.
Satire on fashion: a French hairdresser mounts a ladder to arrange with tongs the curls of a lady with an enormous coiffure, while another man with a long queue, evidently her husband, holds a sextant to measure the height. 15 July 1771. Matthias Darly. British Museum.
The Hampshire Chronicle 11 August 1798 tells us that apparently men preferred their ladies not to wear wigs (make of this what you will!).
This advert by William Johnston which appeared in the Caledonian Mercury, advises his customers that not only did he sell wigs for men, but also women and children in various sizes and colours. I wasn’t aware of children wearing wigs, so a new one to me.
So where did the hair come from? It would appear that there were hair merchants, who would sell the hair either in its natural state or prepared for wig making, such a procedure would probably include dying it. We can see an example of a hair merchant here in this advert in the Northampton Mercury 9 May 1795:
Sadly, I have no context for this next piece which appeared in the Cambridge Intelligencer, 15 September 1798:
The hair merchants first introduced ladies’ wigs, in order to dispose of their over laden market, from the heads of the dead soldiers, during the war. Read this, fair country women, and shudder!
In the 1700s, wig or peruke making was very much a male occupation, with many of them being journeymen who travelled around the country to service their clients. However, I did come across a few women who were wig makers, mainly having taken over their husband’s business upon his demise. Here we have an advert for Alice Rawlinson, whose husband Matthew, had died, but rather than selling the business, Alice decided to continue running it.
And one for Elizabeth Perkins, again continuing to run her late husband’s business, but this woman’s skills knew no bounds, not only peruke making, but bloodletting, ladies ear boring (which presumably means ear piercing), cleaning and teeth drawing.
I’ll finish this article with a snippet from the Hampshire Chronicle of 20 August 1798, about Lady Emma Hamilton’s wigs. True or not, I couldn’t possibly comment, but she was in Naples at this time, so perhaps there is a grain of truth in it.
Update courtesy of Etienne Daly:
15 thoughts on “18th century wigs and wigmakers”
there are certainly 18th century portraits of children who appear to be wearing wigs, just google 18th century children and pick images. Not to mention juvelile pages and the like…
Thanks Sarah. I did have a quick Google for children wearing wigs, but didn’t come across any, but I’m sure there must be some. Some of the children certainly had interesting hairstyles, almost being made to look like mini adults!
I think those elaborate hairstules must be wigs, because the idea of getting a six year old to sit still for those styles makes me want to run and hide; hair brushing and washing are enough of a struggle. No way anyone of under about 8 years old has one of those hairstyles for real, not without every nursery being equipped with manacles.
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I have a book (modern) about eighteenth-century hair and wig styling that suggests that those towering confections of hair were actually built around a wire frame, like a parade float!
Thanks Jennifer. I think to create some of those ‘big hair’ styles they must have used frameworks to create them, but I can’t imagine how awkward and heavy such contraptions would have been, not to mention the risk of snapping your neck 🙂
That’s wonderful! Great fun. When we visited Williamsburg some years ago we were fascinated by the wigmaker. And they said that European hair was too weak to be made into good wigs! So perhaps a way for slaves to make a bit of cash?
Just one tiny point which I’m sure you already know, but it looks odd here. Journeymen were ex-apprentices who hadn’t yet set up on their own (now enough capital?) who were still employed paid by the day (per jour) not necessarily travelling workers.
How interesting, Judy, thanks for your comments as always.
I wasn’t aware about the ‘weakness’ of European hair, as I know today it is used, especially for making wigs for cancer patients – especially this, who I donate to (she says giving them a tiny plug) – https://www.littleprincesses.org.uk/
Yes, aware of the journeyman being former apprentices. I did come across adverts by journeymen who travelled to their clients, which I would think makes sense, having your hair done at home would be much easier for many women of the day ,especially given how long it could take 🙂
For a different type of hair extension you might like this from the diary of Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack)
Wednesday 31 October (1821)
Went to the Belcombes’ & staid some time, sporting my false ringlets pinned on each side of my hat.
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Oh brilliant- thank you for sharing that, Gordon 🙂
Hi! Great article! Castrato Balatri on his travels once met a young person with long blond hair and wanted to buy it, presumably for a wig. As a castrato he didn’t wear wigs (or perhaps he did?), but there was definitely a special fascination for hair in this century. I read somewhere that women had their hair made up but didn’t open the long towering hair styles for a long time and slept in sitting positions to avoid disturbing them. Female actors, I presume had to wear wigs… Would love to share your article on my blog.
Thank you so much for your fascinating comments, I shall research Castrato Balatri further and please feel free to share the article on your blog.
I’ll reblog your great article. There is a little typo in this sentence: “wigs were often made from made from animal hair could cause lice”.
As to castrato Balatri, he wrote extensively about every-day life in London around 1715 (and with much homour). He was, for example. called “French dog” and thrown with mud when he ventured into the streets to see the butchers and other professions at work. Unfortunately, his writings are only available in Italian and there is a book about his life in German…
Typo amended – thanks 🙂
Hmm, Italian and German – not in my skill set, sadly, but I’ll see what else I can find in English.
Looking forward to what you can find in English. I’m a translator from German into English and would love to help if I had not a PhD on my plate. Perhaps at some point in future…
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Reblogged this on Margherita Durastanti and her era and commented:
Enormously long and elaborate male wigs epitomise the world around 1700 and performers like Margherita Durastanti surely wore them on stage as well. So here a fascinating blog on this matter by Sarah Murden.