Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Indispensable Objects for Dressing a Wig, c.1750-80

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Susan reporting,

Sometimes everyday objects from the past are instantly recognizable to modern eyes, while others are completely mystifying. I'm guessing that for most of us today, the two objects above would fall into the mystifying category. Both appeared as part of the talk "Fashionable Fittings for Hair Care and More" from the Head for Fashion conference this past weekend, Colonial Williamsburg; they were displayed by Amanda Keller, assistant curator of historic interiors & household accessories, Colonial Williamsburg.

If you'd worn a wig in late 18th c. England or North America, you would likely have recognized at least one of these peculiar-looking objects. They're both forms of dispensing powder to a dressed wig or hair. (For more about 18th c. hair powder, see here.) The gentleman in the print, lower left, is on the receiving end of a similar device, and looks none to happy about it, either.

The object, lower left, is a wig bellows. The accordion-like section is made of leather. At the larger end is a turned wooden cover that was removed to fill the bellows. At the smaller end is a metal cap with a fine mesh screen. While the leather of the bellows has now stiffened with age, it once must have given a quite satisfying whoosh of fine powder, a snowy dusting that would have been the finishing touch to the coiffed head of a well-dressed gentleman or lady.

The second object, above right, is a wig carrot, named for its resemblance to the vegetable.  It, too,
was used for dusting a wig with powder, but through a slightly different technique. Like the bellows, the end has a fine metal screen with a cap that unscrews for filling with powder. The carrot, however, relies on the lung power of the hairdresser, who would blow through the narrow tip to scatter a find spray of the powder through the other end. The carrot is made of turned wood, while its tip is made of horn.

While I'm sure an 18th c. hairdresser would be able to identify modern curling irons and hair rollers – both are similar in shape to their Georgian counterparts – imagine how amazed (and delighted) he would be by a blow-dryer. All the power of the wind in your hand!

Above: Wig Bellows & Wig Carrot, mid 18th c. England. Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
Below: The Englishman in Paris, by Jno. Collet, 1770. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.


AuntieNan said...

I wonder how dangerous the wig carrot was to the user, with that opportunity to inhale fine silicates! Lung disease was everywhere in the 18th century, and this must've been just one more contributor!
Thanks for this very interesting post--I've never seen either object before!
Nancy N

EDavis said...

There was a lovely moment in the movie "Amadeus" where Mozart is shopping for wigs, and gets powdered -- he says that the wigs are all so lovely that he wishes he had three heads to wear them all.

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