The Secret History of Buying and Selling Hair

Globalization hit the hair trade centuries ago, and the business is still thriving

Female Chinese workers
Female workers make wigs to be exported at a hair products factory in China's Sichuan province. Qiu haiying - Imaginechina/AP

An Ohio woman who goes by the pseudonym Shelly-Rapunzel sold 38 inches of her ankle-length brown hair on for $1,800. “All money is going to doctor appointments that have to be paid upfront,” she says. She is not alone. The website is full of women auctioning their hair to the highest bidder. Not all have tales of hardship: some simply want a change of hairstyle; others do it to raise money for specific purposes such as education or charity; others are regulars who use the hair on their heads to bring in some extra cash every few years.

As a hair seller whose identity is at least somewhat known, Shelly-Rapunzel is an anomaly in a largely anonymous world. The gathering of human hair is on the whole a backstage business about which little is known to those outside the trade. Transactions of this sort where named individuals negotiate good deals for their hair make up only a tiny fragment of the billion-dollar trade in human hair. But the trade itself has a long history.

Much of the hair procured for wigs and extensions on the global market today is collected in bulk by intermediaries in contexts where hair sellers and buyers occupy different social and economic worlds. Most of it is gathered in Asian countries in exchange for modest sums of money. By the time the hair reaches the marketplace, it is usually divorced from not only the head of the woman who sold it, but from its place of origin. Even many of the shopkeepers and traders who sell hair extensions and wigs know very little about how it has been gathered unless they go to the considerable trouble of collecting it themselves or work for a major hair-manufacturing company with a department dedicated to hair procurement. Labels such as “Brazilian”, “Peruvian”, “Indian”, “European”, “Euro-Asian” and “Mongolian” adorn packets of hair, but they often operate more as exotic promises of variety than indicators of hair origin.

This is nothing new. Hair has long been in global circulation and its origin has often been obscured by the time it reaches the market. As a result, descriptions of hair harvesting, whether historic or contemporary, tend to be recounted as unexpected discoveries of a secret world.

“What surprised me more than all,” wrote Thomas Adolphus Trollope about his visit to a country fair in Brittany, France, in 1840, “were the operations of the dealers in hair. In various parts of the motley crowd there were three or four different purchasers of this commodity, who travel the country for the purpose of attending the fairs, and buying the tresses of the peasant girls . . . I should have thought that female vanity would have eventually prevented such a traffic as this being carried on to any extent. But there seemed to be no difficulty in finding possessors of beautiful heads of hair perfectly willing to sell. We saw several girls sheared one after the other like sheep, and as many more standing ready for the shears, with their caps in their hands, and their long hair combed out and hanging down to their waists."

Hair sales in French towns and villages even took the form of public auctions, as graphically illustrated and described in Harper’s Bazaar in 1873.

A platform is erected in the middle of the marketplace, which the young girls mount in turn, and the auctioneer extolls his merchandise, and calls for bids. One offers a couple of silk handkerchiefs, another a dozen yards of calico, a third a magnificent pair of high-heeled boots and so on. At last the hair is knocked down to the highest bidder, and the girl seats herself in a chair, and is shorn on the spot. Sometimes the parents themselves make the bargain over a bottle of wine or a mug of cider.

The scale of hair collecting in this period was considerable even if descriptions sometimes sound exaggerated. ‘There is a human-hair market in the department of the lower Pyrenees, held every Friday,” reports the San Francisco Call in 1898. “Hundreds of hair traders walk up and down the one street of the village, their shears dangling from their belts, and inspect the braids of the peasant girls, standing on the steps of the houses, let down for inspection.’” Brittany eventually forbade public haircutting in a bid to discourage the practice from becoming a public amusement, forcing local "coupeurs" to erect tents at fairs instead.

Large numbers of hair collectors and hair growers were needed to supply the 12,000 pounds of human hair said to be required annually for hairpieces in Europe and the United States. The bulk of it was gathered from Switzerland, Germany and France, with smaller supplies coming in from Italy, Sweden and Russia. There were reports of “Dutch farmers” collecting hair orders from Germany once a year; peasant women in Eastern Europe cultivating their hair with the thrifty purpose with which “one sows wheat or potatoes." Hair peddlers in Auvergne, France, offered women advance payments on future crops and Italian dealers paraded the streets of Sicily in search of a good yield.

Such accounts give an impression of abundance, suggesting that hair could be gathered like any other crop at the appropriate season. In reality, human hair has always been tricky to harvest, not only because it relies on people’s willingness to sell it but also because it grows so slowly. It takes a year to cultivate a yield of four-and-a-half to six inches – a length inadequate for making wigs and hair extensions. A decent crop requires a minimum of two years to grow, and really valuable lengths of 20 inches and above require at least four years. Long hair demands patience from both growers and collectors. In response, 19th-century hair peddlers would often offer women advance payments for hair to be collected three or four years later.

But once peasant girls in Europe started travelling to towns and cities, finding employment as housemaids or in other jobs, they became attracted to bourgeois fashions and started wanting to wear hats that required loose hair. Some resolved the issue by selling or bartering only a small section of hair, cut from the under-portion at the back of the head. That way they could satisfy both themselves and their husbands that they had retained long hair while at the same time gaining access to fancy trinkets that were offered in exchange. This technique  of “thinning”  hair was once common  amongst factory girls in Britain and continues to be practiced by poor women in some Asian countries today. Hair supplies were further boosted by collecting combings, made up of fallen hair salvaged from brushes or from the gutter. Balls of comb waste continue to be collected door-to-door in India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar today in exchange for tiny amounts of money or petty goods.

At the same time that French peasants were abandoning their bonnets at the turn of the century, elite women were adopting more and more grandiose hairstyles and hats, all of which required more added hair. Some Edwardian hats were so wide that they required great wads of additional padding, known as “rats,” to hold them in place. These “rats” were often made of human hair. But where was all this hair to be procured?

Institutional sources in Europe furnished some of the requirements. In Britain, the custom of removing the hair of inmates in prisons, workhouses and hospitals was useful to the hair trade while it lasted, but by the 1850s the practice was no longer compulsory. Convents were a more reliable source, especially in Catholic countries such as France, Spain and Italy, where hair was ceremoniously clipped from the heads of novices as part of the ritual of renouncing the world and dedicating themselves to Christ. Today Hindu temples in South India offer an important source of long hair that has been shaved directly from the heads of devotees in fulfillment of religious vows.

One convent was said to have sold over a ton of “church hair” for £4,000 in the 1890s, whilst another near Tours apparently sold 80 pounds in weight of human hair to a single hairdresser in Paris. But these supplies couldn't satisfy the voracious demand. Hair merchants soon found themselves looking further afield.

“An odious traffic is carried on in women’s hair,” wrote a reporter on famine and starvation amongst the Russian peasantry in 1891. Similar images of necessity are evoked in a description of a hair dealer distributing the business cards of New York hair merchants to European migrants as they boarded steam ships for America. Such canvassing was strictly forbidden at Ellis Island and the Battery, where immigrants arrived and where guards were placed to prevent such activity from taking place. Nonetheless, in the early 1900s, some 15,000 hanks of hair were said to be cut each year directly from the heads of recently arrived immigrants.

“An attempt has been made to open a profitable trade with Japan; but though the Japanese girls were willing to sell their hair, it was found to be too much like horse hair to suit the English market,”reported the Daily Alta California in 1871. Koreans, on the other hand, were said to be entirely ignorant of the export market and instead used their hair to make ropes and saddlecloths for donkeys. China, however, proved a more fruitful source of hair to European and American merchants. Much of it consisted of combings collected from the long plaits or queue of Chinese men. A description of hair at the London Hair Market at Mincing Lane in 1875 reveals the hierarchic evaluations of the day:

The great bulk of it comes from China, is black as coal and coarse as cocoa-nut fiber, but magnificent in length . . . Skilled experts are weighing and feeling the long tresses but soon leave them to investigate the various shades and qualities of one bale of choice European, worth ten or even eleven times as much as the Chinese.

The outbreak of World War I heralded the end of an era of frenzied and voracious hair gathering. Wartime austerity made the wearing of fancy and voluminous hairstyles seem inappropriate. It also affected supplies of hair and labor. In France, many qualified posticheurs and coiffeurs were recruited into the army, leaving women to enter the trade for the first time. However, they lacked the skills and experience necessary for making and maintaining elaborate hair pieces.

European priorities began to shift as people rallied towards the war effort. There were even tales of German women offering their hair to be made into drive belts for submarines. In Britain, women who joined the land army began to opt for the more practical and comparatively liberating bob. The heyday of big hair was provisionally over.

Today, the trade in human hair is once again thriving, fueled by the vogue for extensions and wigs. Like the market of the past, it still relies on a gap in wealth, opportunities or values between those willing to part with their hair and those who end up acquiring it. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of hair that enters the global market today is black at the time of entry. Hair flows most freely from the places where economic opportunities are few.

When South Korea became a center of wig manufacture in the 1960s, it relied partly on its own population for supplies of hair, but as its wealth increased in the decades that followed, it turned to Chinese women for its supply. When China’s wealth increased, the trade pushed its way into Indonesia and today hair collectors are active in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia and Myanmar. Rumor has it that hair is also making its way across the borders from North Korea despite the risks involved in selling it—the newest incarnation of a still secretive industry.

Emma Tarlo is a professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, London and author of ENTANGLEMENT: The Secret Lives of Hair, from which this essay has been adapted.

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