Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Victorian Hair-Guard

Thursday, May 22, 2014
Bradley Headstone & Charley Hexam
Loretta reports:

During my recent re-enactment of sickbed scenes from La Bohème—with less fatal results, in that I did not, actually, die—I whiled away the time reading, among other things, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, his last complete novel and one of my favorites.

Seeking an edition for my eBook reader led me to a review claiming Dickens had been paid by the word.  This concept makes sense to people who (a) never read a reputable biography of Dickens, (b) never had to read Victorian literature in general, and/or (c) can’t imagine a world in which television and radio—let alone the Internet—didn’t exist, and where entertainment was something you read, heard read, went to see/hear, or made for yourself.

Some people have trouble with Victorian writing because it’s …wordy.  It had to be.  People needed detail. Many had never seen the scenes or people novelists described.  Many lived in a world so small we can’t imagine it.  There were Londoners who’d never seen the sea and knew next to nothing about places outside their immediate neighborhoods.

They probably knew what a hair-guard was, though.

“Bradley Headstone,* in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty.”  Our Mutual Friend
Though I’ve studied fashion, the finer points of Victorian male attire are not in my repertoire.  Hair-guard?  Try Googling it.  Yikes.

My OED merely listed it, without definition.  My copy of The Dickens Index said:  “superfine neck-cord made of hair for ensuring the safety of pocket watches, spectacles, etc.”  Having found occasional mistakes in this book, I proceeded to Google.  Filtering to 19th C Books led me to many examples, (here, here, here, here, here - item 71- and here) whose context offered clues, i.e., it is a sort of chain or rope.  But changing my search terms showed me it wasn't necessarily "superfine," as this page of examples demonstrates.

Now we all know.

*Pictured above, courtesy The Victorian Web.  Please click on the caption for a larger image in which the hair-guard is easier to see, and to learn more about the image.
The Doré illustration, "The Organ in the Court," of street children's entertainment, is scanned from my copy of Doré's London, edited by Valerie Purton.


Karen Anne said...

Paid by the word, that was done in my youth when I wrote a newspaper column. Are you saying that it wasn't done in Dickens' time, or that it was not done with Dickens?

Cynthia Lambert said...

Yes, watch fobs made of hair - preferably that of a loved one - were quite common at that time. It would take too long to describe here, but I know the means whereby the intricate weaving of these pieces are constructed. Suffice it to say that ladies saved their hair in a special jar, with a hole in its lid, known as a "hair receiver" on their dressing table. Then they made hairpieces for their hair for more volume, or it was woven into articles such as these fobs, made of hair.

Anonymous said...

I love literary references to such things as hair guards. I don't think I had ever figured out what it was. Also thanks Cynthia for the explanation about hair receivers. I had heard of these but hadn't really put it together with the hair art.


LorettaChase said...

Karen Anne, the subject of Dickens's payment deserves its own post--which is why I didn't go into detail here--but which I hope to have ready either this or the following week. Cynthia, thank you for the added enlightenment. We've been looking for a video of the process--so if anybody finds one, please let us know!

MC Warnock said...

Bradley Headstone wore one in Our Mutual Friend,but he certainly had no sweetheart to make one for him. I cannot work out what it actually is for or how it protects a watch.
MC Warnock.

Unknown said...

It acts like a watchchain does. . . .attaches to the watch and then through a buttonhole on a waistcoat or jacket to try to deter watch-thieves. Cheaper than a watch-chain and less flashy for a "decent" schoolmaster.

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