This weekend, Colonial Williamsburg kicks off the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Kings Arms Barber and Wig Shop, one of our most popular trade sites. Think that archaeologists have nothing to say about 18th century wigs? Guess again. According to Associate Curator of Archaeological Collections, Kelly Ladd-Kostro:
“Wig curlers comprise a small but ever-present component of the many millions of artifacts in the archaeological collection. Made of white clay and mainly of English manufacture, the curlers were molded into varying lengths and thicknesses intended for producing wig curls of various sizes. It should be noted that while most of the curlers found in town are white, we do find some made of red clay which might suggest local manufacture. While wigs and hair do not survive in the ground, wig curlers do, helping to provide evidence of wig making or wig maintenance. We may find just a few curlers at one site, while at another such as Charlton’s Coffeehouse we find dozens, suggesting the presence of a wig maker. Modest in appearance but vital to the styles of the late 17th and 18th centuries, wig curlers are another bit of colonial “trash” which assist us in understanding our past.”
So who was wearing these wigs? According to Colonial Williamsburg’s website, only 5 percent of Virginia’s 18th century population had pockets deep enough to afford wigs. Owning a wig, then, would not just place you among the most fashionable citizens, it also conveyed status. Successful tradesmen, clergy, and landed gentry might have sported hair that wasn’t their own. Another group of wig-wearers who we might not identify as quickly is the military.
In 2001, Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeologists excavated a site behind the Wythe House –lots that were occupied in the 18th century by a carpenter and joiner. A surprising number of wig curlers were recovered from the site, prompting us to think more broadly about this lot and its inhabitants. The Frenchman’s Map confirms that, during the American Revolution, the Wythe House served as French army headquarters. A military guard was most certainly posted around this headquarters— as many as 75 or 100 soldiers encamped on the surrounding land. And among the pieces of a French military uniform: a dressed wig. Imagine trying to maintain a wig in such a setting. No surprise, perhaps, that so many wig curlers were left behind.
For more on wigs,the Kings Arms Barber and Wig Shop, and the upcoming celebration: