Hear tales of hair farms, shaved heads, yak fur, and wigs rigged with live ammunition, told by wigmaker Betty Myers.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. There was hardly a fashionable member of the gentry in 18th century Williamsburg who didn't have business with the wigmaker. Whether you needed a wig, a shave, a bath or perfume, the wigmaker's shop was where you were headed. With us today is Betty Myers who is here to tell us more about this indispensible trade. Betty, thank you for being here today.
Betty Myers: Thank you so much for having me.
Harmony: We think about wigs today as something to compensate for hair loss or just for a special occasion style, but it was used very differently in fashion in the 18th century. Who was wearing wigs and for what occasions?
Betty: Wig wearing basically, we're talking about only about 5 percent of the population and of that 5 percent we're talking middling sort and 2 percent gentry. So, from your founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry. It's interesting, most people don't think of Patrick Henry and Mr. Jefferson sporting wigs. Washington, of course, was the exception. He preferred to wear his own hair.
But then you have artisans and tradesmen, doctors like Dr. Gault, Dr. Pasteur, merchants like Mr. Greenhow, they were all wearing wigs in this period. And then you have your artisans and tradesmen from the blacksmiths, the gunsmiths, the silversmiths. So it's a wide range but primarily focused more in the cities or along the rivers with the rich planters and such.
Harmony: Is this an everyday thing? You wake up in the morning, you clap on your wig, grab a cup of coffee?
Betty: You better believe it because if you're going to be wearing a wig, particularly the custom made wig, you're going to be shaving your head bald.
Harmony: Oh, so you have no choice but to wear your wig?
Betty: It's almost like a marriage. When you say, "I do" you do. It's all or nothing. Now that's not to say you couldn't buy a ready made wig which we have and we make them. You can also import them from England, but those you just simply crop your hear short, have a blockhead made and then the wig fits on your head, but it's not custom made.
Harmony: Say I'm lucky enough to be one of these 5 percent of gentry women who are wearing a wig, where would I be wearing that wig to?
Betty: Well being that it's a custom made you'd wear it as soon as you got up in the morning, when you're in your home entertaining, running the household itself, although you could actually wear a cap to cover your cropped hair or bald pate. When you're doing shopping, anytime you're going out and about, you would be wearing that because it is a status symbol even for the ladies.
Harmony: Are there different styles for daytime, for nighttime, for formal and casual?
Betty: Very much so. White is for formality such as balls, portraits or when you go into battle. Your military men actually wore white wigs, particularly your officers.
Harmony: And why was that preferred?
Betty: Because it's more visible. Particularly for evening attire it's going to be showing up much better than perhaps a dark wig in the Palace when you're dining and dancing against the candlelight is going to reflect and show better. Also, lighter colors, brighter colors show up better as the light fades versus dark colors are more reserved for daytime.
Harmony: What are these wigs made of? Is it human hair, horsehair?
Betty: Very much so. We import all of the hair and its human hair from young girls in Europe who are actually bred for it. Yak hair from Tibet. Goat's hair from Turkey and horsehair from the Orient.
Harmony: Tell me about these young women that were bred for their hair in Europe.
Betty: Oh, I know, whenever we mention "bred for their hair" people are like, "Oh my goodness, bred for your hair?" But basically what it is, is these young girls from birth they're never, obviously they're no younger than 10 and 5, no older than 20 and 5, never dyeing, never staining, never bleaching their hair. They have to keep it covered at all times, as I have my hair covered. But the entire hair would be covered not exposing it to the wind, rain, hail, sleet, sunlight because all that does tend to dry the hair out and damage it. So as we say they're bred for their hair, Northern European girls. We can't really buy hair from America because here in America the young ladies because of the humidity, the heat and all of that it does tend to damage it, dry it out more. And, English goods were ever the best, imported goods.
Harmony: So you're the wigmaker in the shop. You get this shipment of hair from this fancy European hair farm. How do you begin to construct a wig out of that from those raw materials?
Betty: Once we acquire the hair then the hair's already been, normally it's been processed, it's been carded, combed, cleaned and what you're going to do is, once I take the measurement of the patron's head, send the measurement to the woodcarver. He's going to carve the blockhead. I'm sure you probably heard that saying "blockhead."
Once we have that, then the base is made out of that, which is a silk netting that's literally nailed on to the blockhead. You've selected your hair, you as a patron, and then once you have the hair selected you're going to weave the hair on a trussing frame.
Trussing frame, the hair is literally braided in and out and then once it's bound you have literally layers of hair or wefts of hair, as we call them, and that is then attached to the call netting. Starting usually at the bottom working your way up. Sort of like putting shingles on a roof. The placement of the layers, the number of layers, all of that's determined by the density, madam, of your reticule, or the man's pocketbook.
Harmony: And then you're going to style it as well?
Betty: You're going to dress it, style it, shaping up the very end with maybe scissors, shaping up the hair and then you're going to use the curling irons to curl it to get the desired style that you want, but you would have already made those decisions from the very beginning. You would have informed me, you know, "Madam, I'm a lawyer or I'm a merchant," and oftentimes the styles dictate what your occupation is.
Harmony: For example, what style would be typical for a lawyer?
Betty: A lawyer may sometimes have the bag wig where they have two side curls and then they have a silk bag attached to the back. They also, we find, that they're also wearing some of the styles worn in London by solicitors, the lawyers there as well. The typical rose around the top part of it and the knots coming down the bottom, we see that.
Harmony: And the ladies' styles get quite elaborate?
Betty: Quite elaborate. I mean, we find, particularly in Europe, ships in full sail, birdcages with actually live birds; hopefully you'd have a spatter pan.
Harmony: In the wig they'd have a birdcage?
Betty: Literally in wig with a ship in full sail, La Belle Poule. You find that sometimes they would actually have little small miniature canons that could actually fire. So one would hope that during a dance you wouldn't want to step on her toe or offend her.
Harmony: Now the wigmaker's shop doesn't only provide wigs. There's a whole array of services. Tell me about what other services come together under that roof?
Betty: We provide the barbering services, haircuts, shaves, hair dressings. We also wash and launder the wigs and hairpieces. We also provide washing and bathing facilities as well because we do know that some wigmakers provided that service having a tub available for their patrons, also a pitcher and a basin.
If you came in say and you'd been traveling for quite some time and you didn't perhaps have the money for bathing you might simply wash up in a pitcher and basin, pour the water from the pitcher into the basin and wash up whatever body part you felt needed it at the moment. And that's what I tend to do being a working woman.
But if you were landed gentry certainly you'd be offered the services of bathing. We would draw the water first light. It could be heated. I would not advise you coming later in the afternoon because then the water might be a little bit tepid as well as a little bit fragrant. So you might want to step easy when you get into the water.
Harmony: I see, and this is something that has to be drawn from the well bucket by bucket?
Betty: Bucket by bucket so you're saying that I'm having to go up the stairs, which it is located upstairs. Small buckets would be used to haul it upstairs. You might be taking more than 60 trips to go up and down those stairs. So that's perhaps something somebody of my age perhaps prefer maybe one of the young apprentices doing that.
Harmony: Much like today's barber shops the barber shop of the 18th century was a place for social gathering, to meet and exchange news and visit with friends. You are located very strategically in your 18th century location. Talk to me about how the barber shop works into the political life of the community.
Betty: That's something that barbers and wigmakers would certainly strive for when they purchase their shops or acquired their shops. They wanted to be located with the business end and so we're conveniently located next door to the Kings Arms Tavern where you could do all of your dining and across the street from the Raleigh. But more conveniently we're located close to the Capitol.
Mr. Charlton, who's our shop that we represent, he was actually given a contract to do all the shaving and dressing of all the men, the Burgesses there. So when they convened, they would come down to the shop, have taken care of their services whether its dressing their wigs, freshening it up, getting a quick shave. And over the course of that certainly they're going to be discussing all types of politics.
We're all going to be certainly privy of that, but as you well know it's not something that we would try to find ourselves gossiping about certainly. But it would be something that it's a place for men to come together. Have more of the freedom to discuss their opinions and what's going on versus say back at the Capitol.
Harmony: How do you use the historic record to pattern what you interpret today in that shop?
Betty: Well we use primary sources of the day, Garceau, Diderot and others, listing the tools that were utilized, the history, looking at primary sources and resources. Knowing what they were utilizing, that's how we then interpreted into the shop itself to our guests, relying on primary sources.
Harmony: The wigmaker's shop seems like a service that we really don't have an analogy to in the present day.
Betty: Would it not be your beauty shop, your salons, your cosmetology? Any of that, because you find today, is not fashion driving force in America. Fashion is most important the way that you look and so even today when you get up in the morning the way you comb your hair, the way you look. Some folks say that with the American Revolution coming that wig wearing would have simply stopped and ceased, but you find it continued because we're not fighting fashion, we were fighting political views, and so with that in mind you want to still look your best.
I mean, look today, with everything going on and all the conflicts and all of that, but we still continue to frequent our beauty shops, our high-end beauty shops are most important. We model our fashions after those above us. That's the same thing in the 18th century. Those wearing wigs wishing to model themselves after royalty and those who surround the king. And people are continuing to wear wigs whether it's hair loss, disease. Look at your movie stars, look at your people of power and influence who are wearing hair pieces, wearing attachments.
The reasons might be a little different, but they're still wearing them. So I like to say that I really can't ever foresee wigs actually ever going out of fashion.
Harmony: Betty, thank you so much for being our guest today. If people want to visit your shop where can they find you?
Betty: At the wig makers shop Kings Arms Barber Shop right next door to the Kings Arms Tavern.
Harmony: Well we hope all of our guests will make it by your shop on their next visit. Thanks so much for being here.
Betty: Thank you.