The Wigmaker in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg An Account of His Barbering, Hair-dressing, & Peruke-Making Services, & Some Remarks on Wigs of Various Styles.
An Account of his Barbering, Hair-Dressing, & Peruke-Making Services, & some Remarks on Wigs of Various Styles.
Williamsburg Craft Series
Published by Colonial Williamsburg
in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg
Richard Gamble, barber and perukemakerof Williamsburg in the middle yearsof the eighteenth century, appears to haveremained a bachelor all his life. Other thanthis he seems to have been no more improvidentthan the average craftsman of his time. That is to say,he came—or was brought—into court with startling frequencyin an endless round of suits to collect unpaid debts.
He was in good company. Going to the law was part ofthe colonial way of life in Virginia, and everyone from atown’s least citizen to the colony’s greatest planter engagedin it. In fact, suing and being sued had some of the aspectsof a game: the plaintiff in one case might shortly be defendantin another and witness in a third—and keep right ondoing business with the other parties in all three cases!
Court records abound with evidence that Williamsburgwigmakers were just as impecunious and as contentious asany of the rest. Mr. Gamble, however, had an additionaldistinction—of a sort. While most debt cases reachedsettlement out of court or ended in judgment for the plaintiff,Gamble actually went to jail for debt. In the VirginiaGazette of May 8, 1752, appeared this announcement to thepublic:
BEING prevented carrying on my Business as usualby an Arrest for a Debt not justly my own. I herebygive Notice, That I have taken into Partnership withme Edward Charlton, late from London, who will carryon the Business, at my Shop, next Door to the RaleighTavern, in Williamsburg. Gentlemen, who please tofavour us with their Orders for Wigs, &c. may dependon being well and expeditiously serv’d and oblige
Their very humble ServantRichard Gamble.
N. B. All Persons who are indebted to me, are desiredto pay the same to Mr. Alexander Finnie, who isproperly impowered for that Perpose.
Alexander Finnie, co-defendant with Gamble in at leastone large suit for debt—perhaps the one that led to Gamble’s“Arrest”—was himself a wigmaker who had abandoned thecraft for the arduous pleasures of innkeeping. He wasproprietor at the time of the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg’slargest and most famous hostelry.
When Gamble died, Edward Charlton, late from London,succeeded to the business and became in time Williamsburg’sleading barber and wigmaker. His livelihood—as perhapshe foresaw—was already doomed when he retired frombusiness shortly before the Revolution: the wig fashion wason the way out in England and would soon be dropped inAmerica. And in any case his former clientele would vanishfrom the streets of Williamsburg when the capital of Virginiawas moved to Richmond in 1780.
Charlton, Gamble, and Finnie were only three of somethirty men concerned with barbering and wigmaking ineighteenth-century Williamsburg. Once or twice between1700 and 1780 the town apparently had to struggle alongfor short periods with but a single active practitioner of thecraft. Usually there were at least two or three, and for atime in 1769 as many as eight plied their trade in the littlecapital city.
About some of these thirty or more men we know nothingtoday except their names. About others quite a few factssurvive in one place or another, chiefly the records of theYork County Court and the columns of the Virginia Gazette.In addition, Edward Charlton’s account book of sales madeand payments received during the years 1769 to about 1775(there are some later entries) was found in the attic of aWilliamsburg home only a few years ago. It helps immenselyto round out our knowledge of his craft and clientele, andmakes him almost inevitably the “representative” of hisfellows in this account.
Two customers and seven workers in an eighteenth-century French barber-wigmaker’s shop.From left to right: a man (partly obscured in the shadow) prepares hair in the hackle; anothersews weft to the peruke on the wig block in his lap; before the window a girl weaves strands ofhair on the frame to make weft; a customer, standing, protects his face with a cloth as he dustshis head with powder; an apprentice shaves a second customer; in the background two workersheat curling irons in the fire; another apprentice dresses what appears to be a Ramillies wig onthe stand. DIDEROT
All of these Williamsburg barbers and perukemakers performedat least one, but not always all three, of the craft’s4basic services: (1) making, selling, and dressing wigs andfalse hair pieces for men and women; (2) cutting and dressingmen’s, women’s, and children’s natural hair; and (3)shaving men. Before we go into more detail on these aspectsof the craft in colonial days, however, it may be well to peerbriefly still further back into history.
BEARDS, WIGS, AND HISTORY
The trouble with hair is that it persists in growing, andevery once in a while something must be done about it. Overthe millenia since time began—or at least since people began—that“something” has been manifold in variety: dyeing,bleaching, oiling, powdering, pomading, trimming, curling,straightening, shaving off completely, or augmenting withhair from horses, cows, goats, and from other human heads.
Shaving the face was not customary among the ancientGreeks until Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers todoff their beards lest the enemy use them as a convenienthandle in close combat. Thereupon the Grecian tonsorialparlor, known as a tonstrina, added shaving to its previousservices of trimming and dressing the hair and beard, massage,first aid, and minor surgery.
Roman barbers (the word comes from the Latin barba forbeard) followed the example of their Greek colleagues whenthe beard passed out of favor during the Republic. Theclassic reply of the Roman general Archelaus rings true eventoday: asked by a talkative barber how he would like to betrimmed, Archelaus answered, according to Plutarch, “Insilence.”
From the onslaught of the barbarians (a word that comesnot from barba, but from the Greek barbaros, meaningstrange or rude) until about the thirteenth century, thecraft of barbering probably reverted in most of Europe toits elementary procedures of trimming and dressing the hairand beard. In the latter century the first guilds of barberswere formed in both France and England, and by the seventeenth5century the golden age of the barber had begun.
For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inEurope an inordinate emphasis on appearance led to excessesof fashion in both costume and hairdress. Men followed thevagaries of high fashion as faithfully as women, and viedwith each other in wearing long curls of their own or somebodyelse’s hair.
The wearing of wigs, at least for special purposes, was ofancient origin. Wigs have been found on Egyptian mummies;Greek actors wore wigs on stage; fashionable ladies ofRome and Carthage were much addicted to false hair—especiallygolden locks from Teuton heads. But the widespreadwearing of perukes as an everyday article of costumeis generally held to date from 1624, when Louis XIIIadopted the usage.
Here it needs to be said, perhaps, that “wig” and “peruke”are not different styles but different forms of the same word.The French perruque, spelled peruke in England and thecolonies, had gone through an earlier series of English transformations:from perwyke to perewyk to periwig, and thenby abbreviation to wig.
Although Louis XIV disdained wigs until his abundantnatural hair began to fall out, the fashion flourished at hiscourt and was brought over to England by the restoredCharles II, who began in 1663 to affect a large black wig.Charles may have been the first English king to adopt thecustom, but it is said that Elizabeth I owned some 80auburn, orange, and gold wigs to cover her thinning hair.
Just as Louis XIII’s courtiers hastened to don wigs assoon as their monarch did, so aspiring ladies and gentlemenof Restoration England emulated their king. Samuel Pepysrecorded that his wife first acquired “a pair of peruques ofhair, as the fashion now is for ladies to wear; which arepretty, and are of my wife’s own hair, or else I should notendure them.” Then, after great hesitation, he bought a“periwigg” for himself and had his hair cut off and madeinto another.
Pepys’s final word on the subject was to wonder “what willbe the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, fornobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection,that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of theplague.” He need not have been concerned on that score;the fashion throve better after the plague than before, attainingits greatest development under Queen Anne, whenthe long curls of men’s full-bottomed wigs covered the backand shoulders and floated down over the chest. In France,according to Diderot’s Encyclopedia (published 1751-1772),late seventeenth-century perruques were so long and somuch adorned that they commonly weighed as much astwo pounds and cost more than 1,000 ecus (silver coins aboutthe size of a dollar).
Milady’s hairdress reached even more preposterous extremesin the many-tiered and bejewelled “fontanges” ofLouis XIV’s court (an exaggeration he disapproved in vain)about 1700. After a period of some moderation the stylereappeared in the yard-high “heads” dictated to fashion byMarie Antoinette before she lost hers. If English andcolonial women did not go to the extreme, they neverthelessfollowed the style. A letter to the New York Journalor General Advertiser in 1767 complained that “it is nowthe Mode to make the Lady’s Head of twice the naturalSize, by means of artificial Pads, Boulsters, or Rolls” which—thewriter had on good authority—came from hospitalpatients dead of the smallpox and of “a Distemper still moredisagreeable.”
WIG SHOPS IN WILLIAMSBURG
The shop that Richard Gamble entrusted to his newpartner in 1752 stood next door to the Raleigh Tavern, inwhat was sometimes called “the most public part of thecity.” Certainly no better location in Williamsburg couldhave been found for a barber shop than on the Duke ofGloucester Street in the block nearest the Capitol.
“The Preposterous Head Dress, or the Feathered Lady” is the title of this satirical print issuedin London in 1776. Contemporary accounts indicate that the artist did not greatly exaggerateeither the size or the composition of the headdresses affected by fashionable ladies in the capitalsof Europe. Colonial women seem not to have dressed their hair in such heights of fashion.
The broad main street of Williamsburg, muddy or dustyas the season decreed, stretched westward from the Capitolnearly a mile to the College of William and Mary. Duringmost of the year it saw only the normal activity of a smallcolonial town. But several times each year—when thecourts and perhaps the Assembly met—the town’s populationdoubled or tripled. These “Publick Times” werealmost field days of litigation, commercial negotiation, andmerrymaking. Then it was that innkeepers and craftsmenlucky enough to have located in that first block knew howfortunate they were.
One small shop also near the Raleigh had been a barberingand wigmaking establishment at least since John PeterWagnon bought it in 1734. It remained so through the longownership of Wagnon’s one-time apprentice, Andrew Anderson,and the short occupancy of two successor barbers andwigmakers, William Peake of Yorktown and James Currie.Across the street from the Raleigh had stood the shop ofJean Pasteur, one of Williamsburg’s first known wigmakers.Somewhere nearby Alexander Finnie made wigs before movingto the Raleigh itself, and Anthony Geohegan did solater—perhaps in the same shop.
A little farther uptown William Peake had briefly set upbusiness as a barber in Mr. Dunn’s Crown Tavern, oppositethe printing office. James Nichols first opened his shop in“the corner room of the brick house where Mrs. Singletonlives”—now better known as the Brick House Tavern. Andsomewhere along the same crowded street Richard Charlton(who was somehow related to Edward and had at least apassing acquaintance with wigmaking) kept his well-patronizedtavern.
Other craftsmen also located in the same neighborhood.Not far beyond the Raleigh hung the sign of James Craig’sjewelry, watch, and silversmith shop, the Golden Ball. Andnext to it was the millinery store of the sisters Margaretand Jane Hunter—the latter of whom married her neighborEdward Charlton.
The size of Edward Charlton’sbarber and wig shop isnow unknown. For some timeit was probably no larger thana front room of the house heowned opposite the Raleigh.Andrew Anderson’s shop was ina