Hair Powder: History of Its Popularity and Unpopularity

Hair powder was at one time used as an ornament for powdering a person’s hair or wig. It was sometimes perfumed and generally made from pulverized starch or Cyprus powder, although the poor classes were known to use flour. In addition, according to Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, the idea for hair powder was initiated in France:

“The strange fashion of using hair-powder is said to have originated from some of the ballad-singers at the fair of St. Germain in France, whitening their heads, to render themselves more attractive. Introduced into Great Britain, the fashion became universal among the higher and middle classes, and by ladies as well as gentlemen.”[1]

Detail showing hair powder being applied from “Making-decent; -i.e.- broad-bottomites getting into the grand costume,” by James Gillray in 1806. Courtesy of British Museum.

Unfortunately, despite this claim, it seems that that origination of hair powder did not involve ballad singers. Earlier reports note that Marguerite de Navarre, who was born in France’s commune of Angoulême on 11 April 1492 and who married Henry II of Navarre, wore hair powder in the 1500s. Another claim about hair powder and its popularity seems to also refute the idea that French ballad singers popularized hair powder:

“L’Etoile … relates that in the year one thousand five hundred and ninety-three, the Nuns walked the streets of Paris curled and powdered; from that time the custom of powdering has become so common, that in most places of Europe, but especially in France, it is used by both sexes, and by people of all ages, ranks, and conditions.”[2]

From the mid- to late-1770s, huge hair that was powdered was the popular fashion for women. The towering hairstyles that women wore were created using a thin metal frame and a cushion or toque as a support. False hair pieces were intertwined with a woman’s real hair and the combination was curled, waved, or frizzed. It was piled high on the head and once the style was finished, the hair was powdered before decorations were added. Of this fashion Mary Frampton, an English diarist and botanist, provided a description in her journal in 1780:

“At that time everybody wore powder and pomatum; a large triangular thing called a cushion, to which the hair was frizzed up with three or four enormous curls on each side; the higher the pyramid of hair, gauze, feathers and other ornaments was carried the more fashionable it was thought, and such was the labour employed to rear the fabric that night-caps were made in proportion to it and covered over the hair, immensely long black pins, double and single, powder, pomatum and all ready for the next day. I think I remember hearing that twenty-four large pins were by no means an unusual number to go to bed with on your head.”[3]

Although women mainly augmented their own hair with false hair pieces, men tended to wear full powdered wigs, called perukes. The reason these even became popular was because of venereal diseases that resulted in patchy hair loss and because of Louis XIV’s thinning hair. His vanity and his belief that his lack of hair might hurt his reputation caused him to start wearing wigs, which soon became fashionable among other people. White wigs were particularly popular because they were rare and expensive and because for those who had hair, wearing a powdered wig was less destructive than hair dye. Moreover, powdered wigs became a way for the rich to flaunt their wealth and status.

Wig applied before the hair powder

This print by James Gillray shows the wig being applied and is titled “Progress of the Toilet. – The Wig. – Plate 2.” Courtesy of the British Museum.

Among those who embraced wigs and hair powder in the eighteenth century were English and French upper classes, middle classes, and royalty. For example, you could find everyone at the French court wearing powdered hair. This included Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette along with the Queen’s friend and Superintendent of her household, the Princesse de Lamballe, the famous Marquis de Lafayette, and Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry.

Americans similarly embraced the fad. Although no royalty roamed the streets, upper class and middle class people were all powdered. This was mentioned in The American Monthly Magazine related to dress and hair fashions in 1792:

“A New England publisher going about his daily business is said to have worn ‘a pea-green coat, white vest, nankeen small-clothes, white stockings, and pumps fastened with silver buckles. … His hair was well loaded with pomatum, frizzled or créped, and powdered. Behind, his natural hair was augmented by the addition of a large queue, called, vulgarly, the false tail, which, enrolled in some yards of riband hung halfway down his back.”[4]

Hair powders came in a variety of colors. There were black and brown powders with the black powder being created from black ink and brown hair powder achieved by using various colors of umber. In addition, “poudre-maréchale … was of a sparkling reddish brown, and had such an effect in heightening the complexion that actresses took to it kindly, and abused it outrageously.”[5] Men typically used white or gray hair powders whereas most women wore an off-white color, although in England, eighteenth century women tended to powder their hair either with colors of gray or bluish gray, and, after the 1700s, English women also generally never wore the brilliant white so often associated with gentlemen. In addition, women’s hair powders could also be found in variety of pastel colors such as violet, blue, or pink and often contained scents such as lavender, roses, orange flowers, or jasmine.

Hairdressers curling one person and using hair powder on another. By Charles Catton in 1780s. Public domain.

Because of the variety of hair powder colors available in the late 1700s La Belle Assemblée wrote:

“Sensible that this charming diversity was wanting, the ladies of 1784 loaded their hair with coloured powder; and the sunburn and the flaxen were imitated by a kind of yellow and brick-dust-like powder.”[6]

In relation to hair powder, there were various definitions that included the following:

  • Powder: “(from the French poudre) Dust, any thing ground small; dust prepared for the hair; gunpowder.”[7]
  • Powder-bag: This term was used in a 1789 document in the following manner. “Unfortunately the hair-dresser’s wife had applied a cast-off powder-bag of her husband’s to the use of holding flower for her puddings and pies.”[8]
  • Powder-blower or powder machine: “An instrument for blowing powder into the hair”[9] was the definition give in the 1830s, but twenty-first century Professor John Barrell described it more thoroughly: “This was a conical instrument about a foot long, made of silk or soft leather and strong wires: it was something between a concertina and a balloon-pump, but with a fine sieve at the business end to scatter the powder in ‘a regular smoke.’” [10]
  • Powderbox: Dr. Samuel Johnson defined it in his dictionary as, “A box in which powder for the hair is kept.”[11]
  • Powder closet or powder room: The powder closet or room was where hair powder was applied.
  • Powdering: “The act of reducing to powder, the act of sprinkling with powder, the powder applied by sprinkling.”[12]
  • Powder-mask: This was used to prevent powder from getting in a person’s eyes or on his or her face.

Notice the powder-blower on the floor that is used to apply hair powder. “The Boarding School Hair-Dresser.” Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.

To accomplish the powdering the hair was first covered with pomade or pomatum as the greasiness of these products helped greater quantities of powder to stick to the hair. Those who were to be powdered also wore special gowns to prevent the hair-powder from getting on their clothes. To prevent it from getting in their eyes or face, hairdressers often placed a cone-shaped device over the person’s face. In addition, powdering the hair sometimes required a lot of powder as was noted by Frampton in her journal:

“One pound, and even two pounds, of powder were sometimes put into the hair or wasted in the room in one dressing.”[13]

Because of all the powder used and because of the powder machine or powder blower, powder could end up everywhere. In addition, when powder was applied, it was done at distance. To eliminate or reduce the mess and prevent powder from spreading throughout a person house, some people established special powder rooms or powder closets.

“Finishing Touches,” by C.E. Perugini that shows a powdering closet with the hairdresser applying hair powder as only the woman’s face protrudes from a curtain, thereby protecting her dress. Author’s collection.

Among those who did this was Dr. Johnson. He had double doors off his parlor that led to his powder closet where he stored his wigs and where he powdered his hair. Another powder closet was found in a guest room at the Ladies of Llangollen’s Plas Newydd home. Their closet was extremely tiny and required the person being powdered to be seated on a chair inside the closet while the hairdresser stood outside and powdered the person through a large circular hole in the door. A third powder closet was anything but small. It was stated to be an “unusually large closet, having a window that overlooks the garden,”[14] and it was found in the Robert “King” Hooper Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts on the second floor off the bedchamber.

In England, during George II’s time there were numerous public statutes passed about hair powder to prevent fraud, including excise fraud. One publication in 1737 provided a section called “Starch and Hair-powder” that included all the statutes, with one of these stating:

“If any maker of hair-powder, or dealer in hair-powder, shall mix any powder of alabaster, plaister of Paris, or other materials (rice made into starch, and sweet scents excepted) with any starch or powder for hair-power, and shall make any hair-powder with any other materials, and sue use, or offer to fell any hair-powder so mixed, he shall forfeit all the hair-powder so mixed, and 20 l.”[15]

Because hair powder was primarily popular in England from about 1720 to the early 1800s, hair powder again came under parliament’s purview a few years later:

“An act of parliament fixed that the fine dust of which the powder was composed should be made from starch alone; and we learn … that on November 20, 1746, fifty-one barbers were convicted before the Commissioners of Excise at London, and fined £20 each, for having in their keeping hair-powder not made of starch, contrary to act of parliament.”[16]

Beginning in 1795, those who used hair powder in England had to buy a certificate from the local Justice of the Peace after Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger decided to impose an annual tax on hair powder. The tax was one guinea and assessed “on all persons who should in the future wear hair powder.”[17] The law essentially stated:

“That from and after May the 5th, 1795, every person who shall wear hair powder, of whatever materials the same shall be made, shall previously enter his or her name and place of abode, and annual take out a certificate thereof … for which shall be charged a stamp duty of ONE POUND ONE SHILLING.* … That in order to prevent any evasion, EVERY sort of composition of powder which shall be worn by any person, as an article of dress, shall be deemed HAIR-POWDER, within the meaning of the act.”[18]

Applying the wig before applying the hair powder

“Leaving off powder, or A frugal family saving the guinea,” by James Gillray in 1795. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.

Pitt planned to use the tax (along with other taxes he implemented) to fund the war Britain was fighting against Napoleon Bonaparte and France. Pitt was also a Tory and in opposition to the hair powder tax many Whigs abandoned their wigs and their hair powder. However, there were plenty of people who continued to wear wigs and use hair powder because “when gentlemen first left off hair powder with queues, they were considered very unfashionable; and the custom of having the hair cut short … was then deemed vulgar.”[19]

Such vulgarity was part of the reason some refused to abandon their wigs or queues and hair powder. However, another reason to continue with the fashion was that some people were exempt from paying the tax. This included the royal family and their servants, clergymen earning incomes less than £100 a year (Jane Austen‘s father is one example), yeomanry, various military and navy men, and military volunteers.

For those willing to pay the tax, such as barristers or physicians, the Whigs began calling them “guinea pigs” because of the guinea that was assessed for the hair powder. This name calling in turn resulted in the London Times satirizing the closely cropped Whigs.

“With respect to the manipulation of the hair, it is singular to observe that in 1795 a club was described by ‘The Times’ as having been formed in Lambeth called ‘The Crop Club,’ every member on which, on his entrance, is obliged to have his head docked as close as the Duke of Bridgewater’s old bay coach-horses. This assemblage is instituted for the purpose of opposing, or rather evading, the tax on powdered heads.”[20]

Hair powder license

Shows a man inspecting his hair powder license. Titled “A Guinea-Pig,” published by Bowles & Carver after Robert Dighton and dated between 1790-1799. Courtesy of British Museum.

Wigs and hair powder might have remained in fashion even with England’s tax if it were not for a couple of other reasons: wheat scarcity, revolution, and France being a fashion leader. In France, during the revolution, bread was scarce, and people were starving. There was also a bread crisis in the 1790s in England. With all the shortages and starving people flouring one’s head became “politically incorrect” and people began to abandon the practice.

Across the Atlantic, in America, wigs and hair powder had also been viewed as a status symbol. When the American Revolution broke out people realized that getting rid of wigs also blurred class distinction. Thus, wigs and hair powder were eliminated when revolutionaries began to think about the equality of men.

France had long served as the fashion leader for Europe and like the English and Americans, wigs tended to be associated with royalty and the upper classes in France. To avoid the guillotine and to blend in with revolutionaries, nobility and upper classes began to abandon their wigs for simpler more natural hairstyles. Thus, once Frenchmen began to give up their wigs and hair powder, it was just a matter of time before other European countries followed suit.


*A pound was 20 shillings, and a guinea, which was an archaic unit of currency, was one pound plus one shilling. Today, its equivalent would amount to about £106.60 based on calculations acquired from measuringworth.

References:

  • [1] W. Chambers and R. Chambers, Chambers’s Encyclopædia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People v. 5 (London: W. and R. Chambers, 1876), p. 192.
  • [2] W. Alexander, The History of women v. 2 (London: C. Dilly, 1782), p. 149–50.
  • [3] M. Frampton and H.G.F. Mundy, The Journal of Mary Frampton (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1885), p. 2–3.
  • [4] The American Monthly Magazine v. 7 (Washington, D.C.: R.R. Bowker Company, 1895), p. 213.
  • [5] The Living Age v. 78 (Boston: Littell, Son, and Company, 1863), p. 207.
  • [6] La Belle Assemblée: Or, Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine (London: J. Bell, 1819), p. 136.
  • [7] J. Ash, The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language v. 2 (London: Edward and Charles Dilly in the Poultry; and R. Baldwin in Pater-Noster Row, 1775)
  • [8] The British Mercury Or Annals of History, Politics, Manners, Literature, Arts Etc. of the British Empire v. 10, nos. 27-39 (Hamburgh: Hoffmann, 1789), p. 49.
  • [9] A. Bernays, A New English-German and German-English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in General Use (Philadelphia: G.W. Mentz and Son, 1835), p. 394.
  • [10] J. Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 149.
  • [11] S. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: W. G. Jones, 1768)
  • [12] J. Ash. 1775
  • [13] M. Frampton, and H.G.F. Mundy. 1885, p. 36.
  • [14] American Homes and Gardens v. 11 (New York: Munn and Company, 1914), p. 275.
  • [15] J. Cay, An Abridgment of the Publick Statutes in Force and Use from Magna Charta, in the Ninth Year of King Henry III. to the Eleventh Year of His Present Majesty King George II. Inclusive v. 2 (London: His Majesty’s Printer, 1739), p. 141.
  • [16] W. Chambers, and R. Chambers. 1876, p. 192.
  • [17] T. Mortimer, A General Dictionary of Commerce, Trade, and Manufactures: Authorities (London: R. Phillips, 1810)
  • [18] An Abstract of the Hair Powder Act, Containing Full Particulars of Every Clause, Respecting the Duty, Comissioners, Surveyors, Clerks, Ofices, Exemption … Etc. with the Manner of Collecting the Duty, and Levying the Fines (London: Allen and West, 1795), p. 3.
  • [19] W. Chambers, and R. Chambers. 1876, p. 192.
  • [20] Norfolk Chronicle, “Reviews,” April 10, 1897, p. 2.

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