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How George Washington Did His Hair

Despite the powder and curls it wasn’t a wig at all

(Image Source/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

George Washington’s hairstyle is iconic and simple enough that most Americans can probably recall it in an instant — or they can at least refresh their memory by pulling out a dollar bill or a quarter. It was pulled back from his forehead and puffy on the sides, colored grey-white perhaps like many wigs of the day. But Washington never wore a wig. At National Geographic, Robert Krulwich writes that he was stunned to learn this fact from Ron Chernow’s book Washington: A Life. Krulwich explains:

Turns out, that hair was his. All of it—the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck. What’s more (though you probably already guessed this), he wasn’t white-haired. There’s a painting of him as a young man, with Martha and her two children, that shows his hair as reddish brown, which Chernow says was his true color.

The painting, The Courtship of Washington by John C. McRae, was painted in 1860, long after Washington’s death in 1799. But a project out of the University of Virginia called The Papers of George Washington also confirms that the first president’s natural hair color was light brown. The style he favored wasn’t fancy, though it may appear so to modern eyes. It was a military style called a queue, "the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut," Krulwich writes. With charming illustrations, artist Wendy MacNaughton brings to life Washington’s routine — the gathering, enthusiastic yank back to try and broaden the forehead, fluffing of the hair on the side and the powdering.

Even if Washington didn’t wear a wig — as some of his contemporaries sported — he did powder his hair to get that white look. It may also have been the fashion in America to wear less elaborate wig styles, if one wore a wig at all. By the late 18th century, wigs were starting to go out of style. So Washington could have been fashion-forward in his military simplicity. Still, the powdering was a chore involving a robe to protect clothes, a cone to protect the face and sometimes special bellows to puff the powder evenly. But Washington’s use of powder raises the question, how did he avoid the look of permanent dandruff? Krulwich writes:

[Betty Myers, a master wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg in Vierginia], says that’s why Washington bunched his ponytail into a silk bag, to keep from leaving a white windshield wiper splay of powder on his back when he was dancing with the ladies (which he liked to do). As for keeping the powder off one’s shoulders, how Washington did that—if he did do that—nobody could tell me. Probably every powder-wearing guy in the 1760s knew the secret, but after a couple of centuries, whatever Washington did to stay spotless is lost to us.

It’s possible that the same solution that helped Washington’s hair rolls stay fluffy also kept the powder sticking — greasy hair and lots of pomade. Bathing and washing hair frequently wasn’t a popular activity, so powders also solved the problem of smelly unwashed heads — they were perfumed. It’s a good thing fashions change.

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