Wigs: Their Wearers and Eighteenth-Century Anecdotes

In the eighteenth century, those who wore wigs almost always powdered them. By the 1780s, young men were moving away from wigs and were powdering their own natural hair and by the 1790s both wigs and hair powder were used primarily by older, more conservative men, such as Voltaire, whom Madame Tussaud made sure had a voluminous wig when his wax figure appeared in her museum. Although wigs may have been dwindling in popularity by the late eighteenth century, there were many anecdotes about them and their wearers.

Pastel of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One anecdote related to wigs involves Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist, writer, and antiquarian, who Horace Walpole said embraced some “extraordinary eccentricities.” One of his quirks was his “antipathy” to wigs as he always wore his own natural hair. However, he suppressed his aversion to wigs until he had too much wine, which at that point, he would always indelicately remove the wig-wearer’s wig.

Wigs - Thomas Pennant

Thomas Pennant by Thomas Gainsborough in 1776. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One day Pennant went to dinner with a wig-wearing officer. After Pennant became inebriated, another friend also dining with pair, placed himself between Pennant and wig-wearing officer to prevent mischief.

“After much patience, and many a wistful look, Pennant started up, seized the wig, and threw it into the fire. It was in flames in a moment, and so was the officer, who ran to his sword. ― Down stairs runs Pennant and the officer after him, through all the streets of Chester. ― But Pennant escaped, through superior local knowledge, [which] a wag called this ‘Pennant’s tour in Chester.’”[1]

That wasn’t the only wig that ended up in a fire. In 1776, a miserly gentleman noted that he had a servant who saved him the expense of a barber and who used butter instead of pomatum. The miserly gentleman also mentioned that his “drudging box” produced the same effect as any hair powder. He then mentioned his wife:

“[S]he used to wear a Frizzat … but since we came last to town, the old Numps took a kick in her gallop as the saying is, and so purchased a full dress wig, in order to be in the fashion forsooth ! and would wear it in spite of all my remonstrances, ‘till a wag a few days ago eyeing her somewhat seriously, observed with an oath, that ‘she looked like an owl peeping through an ivy bush;’ and whether she was struck with the justice of the smile or not, I can’t tell, but she came home in a pout, and in an agony of rage, seizing her wig with all the bredes, pokes, curls, and appurtenances, thereunto belonging, and flung them into the fire, and now the old frizzat aforesaid has reassumed its quondam station.”[2]

John Elwes, a politician, member of parliament, and a noted eccentric was also a great miser. In fact, some people suggest that he may have been the inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Elwes’ miserliness meant that he walked home in the rain instead of paying a shilling for a coach; he sat in wet clothes rather than light a fire to dry them; and he ate food in the last stages of “putrefaction.” One of Elwes’ friends also reported:

“[H]e wore a wig for above a fortnight, which I saw him pick up out of a rut in a lane where we were riding. This was the last extremity of laudable economy; for, to all appearance, it was the cast-off wig of some beggar. The day in which I first beheld him in this ornament exceeded all power of face, for he had a torn brown coat, which he generally wore, … a full dressed green velvet coat, with slash sleeves; and there he sat at dinner in boots, … his own white hair appearing round his face, and this black stray wig at the top of all. A Captain Roberts, who was with us at the time, and who had a great respect for Mr. Elwes, was yet unable to sit at dinner for laughing.”[3]  

John Elwes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wigs were sometimes great silencers as pointed out by the Leeds Intelligencer who reported on the famous German composer George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel. It was reported that he was always “remarkably jealous” of any changes or “innovations” made to his compositions. One day while he was at a rehearsal the first fiddle decided to add some “flourishes” to one of his movements. When Handel heard the sounds, despite being unable to see exactly who was playing the flourish, he rose to his feet “and, in the torrent of his rage, finding no other weapon of offence, he discharged his wig (a voluminous tye) in so just a direction, that he hit the performer full upon the tenderest part – his fiddle, which produced the most desirable effect, of totally silencing him.”[4]

Wigs - George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wigs could also apparently frighten people into states of “madness” or at least that is what the Ipswich Journal claimed in 1786 about a 5-year-old boy, who apparently went mad after seeing a man with a “reversed wig.” To ensure the safety of the boy he was confined. However, it didn’t last long because he “broke his confinement, and leaped from the leads on the top of Aldgate workhouse, which is four stories high. About the midway he split a wooden water-pipe; three yards from the pavement he broke a rail; and after all was taken up without the least hurt, excepting a small bruise on his brow.”[5]

Apparently, not all wigs were made of hair in the eighteenth century. One interesting wig tale involves a swarm of bees. A Mr. Wright of St. Faith’s in Norwich was taking a leisurely walking in his garden when suddenly a few bees alighted on his head. They continued to arrive until his entire head was covered with a buzzing mass of bees that made it appear as if he was wearing a barrister or judge’s wig. In the meantime, help was called and a plan formed that meant Wright found himself stuck with the bees for more than two hours “while the customary means were used for hiving them, which was [fortunately] … done without his receiving any injury.”[6]

Another rather ludicrous story about wigs involves a church mouse and Easter Sunday in 1790. A vicar in Chester was giving an evening lecture when his congregation’s attention was diverted by the appearance of a mouse pepping through a small crevice in a wooden desk very near the head of the church’s bewigged clerk. According to the Hartford Courant:

“The sagacious little animal with hesitative steps, at length ventured out, attracted, as is supposed by the inviting perfume of [the clerk’s] … wig; a large portion of flour and pomatum having been laid on in honour of the day. Pinching hunger more potent that even love itself, soon forced the poor intruder to the upper works of the Clerk’s [head], (at the time half immersed in sleep) … [and there] seating itself at the top of his wig, … the little thief made a sacrilegious attack on the grease that lay so temptingly around it. The smothered titterings of the congregation burst out into a broad grin, which disturbed both the Minister and the Mouse; the preaching and nibbling ceased at the same moment; when the vicar perceiving the cause of the laughter, called to the clerk to put his hand upon the top of his wig!”[7]

Wigs - church mice

Church Mice. Author’s collection.

Unfortunately, the clerk was sound asleep at that point and gave a snore indicating his sleeping state. The Vicar attempting to wake him called out the clerk’s name loudly several times and then threatened to take him by the ear. About that time, the clerk snorted himself somewhat awake and added “Amen!” That produced a roar of laughter from the congregation, which then drove away the mouse and resulted in the congregation “being so intolerably deranged, it was some time before they were restored to their natural church-going state of gravity.”[8]

Wigs were regularly stolen in the eighteenth century and one story that also happened on Easter day involves a wig thief named Mary Smith. She was arrested wearing men’s clothes, a crime for which Jeanne Bonnet, a frog-catching cross dresser, was also arrested in San Francisco, California in the 1800s. However, in this case Smith was arrested in the Parish of Layton and committed to Barking for stealing several wigs from a family, along with other things as detailed by the Public Advertiser:

“She is about 23 Years of Age, about five Feet high, not slight made for a Woman, much pitted with Small-pox, a Scar in her Forehead, had on a Man’s Hat, a grizzle Wig, blue-grey Coat, Leather Breeches, and a Drawer’s blue Apron, and black Stockings; and as it is imagined she must have offered to Sale many Things stolen, such as Lead, Iron, Old Cloaths, Linen, &c. particularly on or about the 18th of February a Shoemaker’s Shop was broke open, and many Pair of Shoes, five Pair of Boots, and two old Boots taken away, among the Shoes were one with a high Cork Hell, and the Fellow to it with a Leather Heel.”[9]

Another anecdote about the wearer of wigs happened when a wig-wearing clergyman went to St. James’s to visit a relation who served as page. While there they began drinking tea and then the clergyman heedlessly stepped backwards onto a narrow flight of stairs and tumbled down the whole flight bursting open a closet door. When he recovered himself, he found he was on sitting on the floor being “sedulously attended by a neat little gentleman, who was carefully washing his head with towel, and sitting, with infinite exactness, pieces of sticking-plaister to the variegated cuts which the accident had created.”[10]

The clergyman was surprised and remained silent while the gentleman completed his task, picked up his wig, and replaced it on his badly bruised head. At that point the clergyman “rose from the floor, and, limping towards his benefactor, was beginning to express his thanks … [but] was instantly checked by an intelligent frown, and a significant wave of his hand towards the closet door. The patient understood the hint, and retired, wondering how so much humanity and unsociableness could dwell together.”[11] He understood later when he inquired as to his caregiver and discovered it was George II who had attended to him and put back on his wig.

Wigs - George II

George II. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Humphry French was Lord Mayor between 1732 and 1733, a counselor named Costello was called to the bar. Everyone who knew him always noted that he wore his “grizzle wig” both in and out of court. He also regularly had this wig styled and cared for by his barber, which he had accordingly sent out to the barber.

In the meantime, there had been an influx of people working or somehow infringing on the Sabbath. To stop this Sabbath-breaking, magistrates ordered constables to be stationed in the street to “seize upon” those found working or in other ways not honoring the Sabbath. Among those arrested was Costello’s barber as he had been found attempting to deliver the counselor’s wig to him. The barber was released later that day, but the wig and its box were detained.

Costello therefore found himself forced the next day to appear in public with an “undressed bob.” He also had an appointment to dine with the Lord Mayor at 2pm, but when Costello arrived at French’s door, the Lord Mayor did not recognize the wigless man that stood before him. So, he asked the man why he had come to dine with him:

“The Counsellor replied, that as his Lordship had deprived him of the means of bread, the least he could do was to support him. My Lord (says he) one of your officers yesterday seized on my wig, and a barrister can be accounted of no consequence without that necessary appendage, I am this day deprived of my practice in court, and consequently must board myself with your Lordship while you think proper to detain that which is the prime essential of a lawyer. A laugh ensued, and the wig was restored, but his Lordship was so pleased with his guest, that Mr. Costello was not only entertained that day, but a friendship was kept up during the short remainder of that remarkable magistrates life.”[12]  

Newspaper advertisement for wigs in the 1777. Author’s collection

Another interesting tale of wigs begins in the early 1700s when a poor Irishman emigrated to the American frontier and settled in Augusta territory that eventually had seven states carved from it: Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, and part of Pennsylvania. The Irishman had not been there long when the white people inhabiting the area began to have problems with the Native American Indians and a party was established to “go against them.” The party soon faced off and were defeated by the Native Americans but according to the London Times:

“During the pursuit the Irishman, who had thrown away his gun to accelerate his flight, was overtaken by a stout [Native American] who, with his scalping knife in one hand, laid hold with the other (as is their custom,) of the Irishman’s hair … It can easier be conceived than described, the affright and astonishment of the poor [Native American] at beholding the whole of a man’s hair [that came] … off without the application of the knife. While the [Native American] stood thus surprized, turning the wig, and muttering to himself, the Irishman again took to his heels and got off.”[13]  

In the 1700s a delegation of Cherokee Chiefs visited London. They were rather unimpressed with their visit in that city until the Lord Mayor’s coach approached and they were told through an interpreter that he was the “chief warrior” of the nation and that he had “just returned from a campaign against the Spaniards, whom he had totally subdued, killing numbers of them himself, and the wig he then wore, was composed of scalps taken with his own hand.”[14] When the chiefs saw him in the coach and saw that his wig was enormous, they were so impressed they decided to honor him and drew their tomahawks and began brandishing them over the heads advancing with a war whoop towards him. Of course, the Lord Mayor not understanding what was happen attempted to retreat by the other coach door but instead turned the latch the wrong way and locked himself inside.

In the meantime, the whooping and advancing of the chiefs continued until they were within an arm length of him. Hoping to escape through the window, he broke the glass but when exiting the coach the broken glass latched onto his curly wig. He then tried unsuccessfully to free his wig glittering with splinters. The delay gave the interpreter enough time to reach him, but the Lord Mayor thinking he too was one of the Cherokee Chiefs, retreated inside the coach while his wig remained half suspended in the fragmented window. The mistake was then explained to him and at length he realized the “attack” was actually a compliment. “[H]e shook hands with the Cherokee Chiefs, and adjusting the Spanish scalps, proceeded toward Westminster Hall … without further accident.”[15]  

Three Cherokee Chiefs and their interpreter who went to London in1762. Courtesy of the Royal Trust Collection.

The last anecdote about wigs involves a respectable Parisian magistrate, Monsieur Le Noir, who had arranged a marriage for his daughter to a gentleman of “merit and fortune.” Prior to the wedding Le Noir decided he needed a new wig and went to his wig maker and ordered an “elegant wig.” When the wig was finished the wigmaker was busy and had a journeyman deliver it to Le Noir, who at the time was also busy. “M. Le Noir had the box brought to him as soon as the hurry of his business was over, when lo ! instead of a senatorial periwig he found a DEAD CHILD.”[16]

The wigmaker was immediately sent for and seeing his error, explained that his wife and delivered a stillborn infant two days earlier. The person charged to intern the body had mistakenly taken the wrong box and buried the one with Le Noir’s wig. Supposedly, upon hearing the story “Le Noir laughed very heartily, and had the wig EXHUMED, and the child consigned to its proper place.”[17]  

References:

  • [1] “May 17, 1799,” Chester Chronicle, May 17, 1799, p. 3.
  • [2] The Freeman’s Journal, “To the Committee for conducting the Free Press,” August 13, 1776, p. 1.
  • [3] Kentish Gazette, “Biographical Anecdotes of the Late John Elwes, Esq.,” January 8, 1790, p. 2.
  • [4] Leeds Intelligencer, “Anecdote of Mr. Handel,” April 5, 1768, p. 4.
  • [5] The Ipswich Journal, “Tuesday’s Post,” August 19, 1786, p. 4.
  • [6] The Derby Mercury, “Saturday and Sunday Mails,” August 3, 1797, p. 2.
  • [7] Hartford Courant, “A Church Mouse,” October 4, 1790, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] The Public Advertiser, “Whereas Mary Smith was taken Easter,” April 3, 1761, p. 4.
  • [10] Derby Mercury, “Anecdotes of George II,” February 28, 1793, p. 3.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] The Freeman’s Journal, “Postscript,” November 19, 1785, p. 4.
  • [13] The Times, November 18, 1785, p. 3.
  • [14] The Independent Gazetteer, “Anecdote,” February 19, 1791, p. 4.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Kentish Gazette, “Anecdote of Monsieur Le Noir,” July 20, 1790, p. 2.
  • [17] Ibid.

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