Nineteenth-century Americans believed hair could reveal not only a person’s race and gender but also his or her true identity and character—qualities like trustworthiness, courage, or criminality.
“Is hair any index of temperament?” one reader asked the Herald of Health, a New York health-science magazine, in a published exchange. The editor responded in the affirmative, quoting at length from a recent treatise on human hair: “Fine, dark-brown hair signifies the combination of exquisite sensibilities with great strength of character…. [while] … harsh, upright hair is the sign of a reticent and sour spirit.” The list went on.
A PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, Sarah Gold McBride is teasing out the larger meaning of hair in 19th-century America. One chapter of her dissertation looks at the popularity of hair-collecting in the Victorian era; another explores cultural understandings of male and female facial hair, and how the latter was used to critique early women’s rights advocates.
She writes about the uses of hair in criminology, debates about long tresses on men (and what it meant about masculinity and race), and more.
By the 20th century, hair became “a means of creative self-expression, or a way to signal one’s political or cultural affiliation,” says Gold McBride. “But what makes the 19th century different is the belief that hair could tell its own story” about a person, regardless of how that individual chose to wear their hair.
Why was hair accorded such authority at the time? Gold McBride argues that in an increasingly modern society—but before the internet, credit reports, or easily accessible public records—people looking for trustworthy means to size up strangers put stock in physical characteristics like skull measurements (popularized via phrenology), facial features (physiognomy), and hair.
Although hair did not have its own pseudoscience, a New Orleans reporter proposed in 1846, possibly in jest, a new field of study to be called “whiskerology.”
“Various amateur scientists, in the first half of the century, researched hair on a strand-by-strand level,” she says. They looked for instance, at hair-follicle shape for evidence that “black people and white people came from two separate origins.”
In pursuing her research, Gold McBride has mined libraries and archives and pored through newspapers, books, pamphlets and illustrations. And though traditional archives don’t offer the search term “hair,” digitization has changed the game for historians, notes Gold McBride.
“Google Books has been great for 19th-century history; you can search down to the text of the book,” she says. “Twenty years ago, that would have been impossible.”
Source: Cathy Cockrell for UC Berkeley