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Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs

Customs and Fashions in Old New England

like our modern "bangs;" for Higginson, writing of the Indians in 1692, says: "Their hair is generally black and cut before like our gentlewomen." The false locks denounced by Mather were doubtless "a pair of Perukes which are pretty" of Pepys's time, about 1656; or the "heart breakers" worn in 1670, which set out like butterfly-wings over the ears, and which were described thus: "False locks set on wyers to make them stand at a distance from the head."

From a letter written by Knollys to Cecil we learn that Mary Queen of Scots wore these perukes. He says:

"Mary Seaton among other pretty devices yesterday and this day, she did set such a curled hair upon the Queen that was said to be a Peruke, that showed very delicately, and every other day she hath a new device of head dressing without any cost, and yet setteth forth a woman gaylie well."

The "towers like comets" were doubtless commodes, which were in high fashion in Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth century until about the year 1711, though I have never found that the word commode was used in America. These commodes were enormously high frames of wire covered with thin silk, or plaitings of muslin or lace, or frills of ribbon—and sadly belied their name.

A simpler form of hair-dressing succeeded the commode; portraits painted during the following half-century, such as those of Copley, Smibert, and Blackburn, show an elegant and graceful form of coiffure, the hair brushed back and raised slightly from the forehead, and sometimes curled loosely behind the ears. At a later date the curls were almost universally surmounted by a lace cap. Pomatum began to be used by the middle of the century. In the Boston News Letter of 1768, we read of "Black White and Yellow Pomatum from six Coppers to Two Shillings per Roll." The hair was frequently powdered. Hair-dressers sold powdering puffs and powdering bags and powdering machines, and a dozen different varieties of hair-powder—brown, maréchal, scented, plain, and blue. By Revolutionary times a new tower, or "talematongue," had arisen; the front hair was pulled up over a stuffed cushion or roll, and mixed with powder and grease; the back hair was strained up in loops or short curls, surrounded and surmounted with ribbons, pompons, aigrettes, jewels, gauze, and flowers and feathers, till the structure was half a yard in height. This fashion was much admired by some; a young lover of the day wrote thus sentimentally of a fair Hartford girl: "Her hair covered her cushion as a plate of the most beautiful enamel frosted with silver." A Revolutionary soldier wrote a poem, however, which regarded from a different point of view this elaborate headgear in such a time of national depression. His rhymes began thus:

          "Ladies you had better leave off your high rolls
          Lest by extravagance you lose your poor souls
          Then haul out the wool, and likewise the tow
          Twill clothe our whole army we very well know."

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This page was last updated on 12 Oct 2005