Thursday, March 23, 2017

Alexander Hamilton's Powdered Hair, c1796

Thursday, March 23, 2017
Susan reporting,

Yesterday I wrote here about how Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (the heroine of my new historical novel, I, ELIZA HAMILTON) followed the latest fashion for hedgehog-inspired hair, a style made popular by Marie Antoinette. Curled and frizzled, pomatumed and powdered, the hairstyle would have been the work of a skilled hairdresser, and probably taken considerable time to achieve, too.

For her husband Alexander Hamilton, that same powder and pomatum was a near-daily ritual. Today we look at portraits of the Founding Fathers and think the American Revolution was the work of a bunch of old men. This wasn't the case: many of the members of the Continental Congress were in their thirties, or even their twenties, and the soldiers fighting in the army were even younger. Even George Washington was only in his early forties when he became the Commander-in-Chief. However, many of the portraits of the Founders that we see today were painted when these men were much older and more venerable. In addition, many of them powdered their hair, which made them appear prematurely grey.

While many 18thc gentlemen wore wigs - signs of status as well as fashion - American military men often took their cue from Washington, who always wore his own hair instead of a wig. Washington's hair was naturally reddish-brown, but always hidden under a thick coat of pomatum and white powder, exactly as used by the ladies (more about powder and pomatum here.) But while the ladies were hoping for plenty of big-hair-volume, Washington expected his pomatum regimen to hold his hair neatly in place and out of the way, sleeked back from his forehead, clubbed, and bound in a queue at the nape of the neck with a black silk bow. He expected his officers to do the same, a show of military uniformity and neatness, and many of the men continued to wear a variation of the style long after the war was over and their military days done, or at least as long as they still had the hair for it.

Among these officers was Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Washington's most trusted aide-de-camp during the war and a bonafide hero in battle, Hamilton always enjoyed the display of a well-cut uniform, and was proud of retaining his military bearing throughout his life. By the 1790s, many American men had already abandoned wigs and the now-old-fashioned pomatum and powder except for the most formal occasions. Younger men were cutting their hair short, too. But Hamilton preferred to retain the smart military look of well-dressed hair from his days as a young man in the Continental Army, much the way some modern former soldiers continue to wear very short or shaved haircuts even after returning to civilian life.

Hamilton's hair was serious business, with payments to his barber listed in his cash books. His third son, James Alexander (who was born in 1788, making this recollection likely from the late 1790s, when Hamilton was working as an attorney in New York City), recalled his father's ritual with the barber:

"I recollect being in my father's office in New York when he was under the hands of his hair-dress[er] (which was his daily course). His back hair was long. It was plaited, clubbed up, and tied with a black ribbon. His front hair was pomatumed, powdered and combed up and back from his forehead."

The pastel drawing, above, was a portrait that the Hamilton family regarded as one of the best likenesses, showing his handsome profile and half-smile. It's also a splendid view of that well-dressed hair tied with the black ribbon. It appears to cut shorter and fuller in front, with the back long (I'm resisting mullet references.) I especially like how there's a dusting of hair powder on the collar of his black coat - once the sign of a well-groomed gentleman.

Fun fact: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette were all described by contemporaries as having various shades of red hair. Who knew, under all that powder?

Above: Alexander Hamilton by James Sharples, pastel on paper, c1796, New York Historical Society. 

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post! I have always enjoyed the fact that so many of the founders were ginger, something that is not widely known thanks to all that powder.

I imagine Hamilton had a daily shave at the barber, too. And then probably winked at himself in the mirror.

Unknown said...

Haha, Jane! His son's reminiscence is one of my favorite passages...I love reading about Alexander's family life.

Great blog post!

Cynthia Lambert said...

Such a handsome fellow. What a pity he came to an early end. Eliza must have been devastated.

Unknown said...

I have heard it said, and I tend to agree, that the latter 18th century was the era in (Western) human history in which people adopted the most unnatural and tortured collection of hairstyles/wigs. I wonder why that is.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket