Capillary Freaks

The romance of hair

It would be a serious undertaking to glean from the pages of history and mythology all the narrations that are associated with that beautiful, but perishable material, human hair. Tresses were to blame when the young man Absalom was hoisted aloft by the skeleton hand of the tree, and the welkin rang to the vox populi when Delilah took down the strong man of his time by shearing off the locks in which it was supposed that his strength lay. Delirium tremens must have been epidemic in the days when the Gorgonian female, whose curls were the curling of snakes, made stone sculptures of men by revealing herself to their gaze. From all time death and fury, as well as love and glory, have leaped out with the sparks that flash from a lock of woman’s hair. It is well to say that the story of Jason, and how he sailed the good ship “Argos,” with a princely crew, in search of a golden fleece, is nothing but a romance and a myth. Some girl with golden hair was at the bottom of that fiction, you may depend. It might have been Medea, and it might not; but as I conjure up a vision of a tree with a golden fleece hardening upon it, and a dragon at the foot of it keeping guard over the treasure, the scene changes like a dissolving view, and I see nothing but a lovely woman tressed in golden glory, watched by an elderly person who might pass for a very good dragon indeed. Look at home, now, and see the legions of Browns and Smiths who have pricked each other with rapiers, or riddled each other with lead, on account of a ringlet accorded to one or the other of them by some damsel false as fair. But the romance of hair is too prolific a subject to be lightly handled, and I pass on to its history.

The caprices of fashion with regard to woman’s hair furnish a good deal of material for satire at the present day; but the most extravagant of them now are tame compared with the capillary freaks of women in the olden times. Among the Roman women, at one period, there was a morbid ambition to grow beards, and they used to shave their faces and smear them with unguents to produce those inappropriate appendages. Cicero tells us that there was a law passed against this practice, which is a proof that it must have been carried to a great extent. Among the Greeks, too, a similar fancy appears at one time to have existed; for they represented their Cyprian Venus with a beard, and Suidas asserts that false beards were more than once in vogue with the Athenian women. The Loinbard lasses, also, bad the same notion, but with more purpose in it; for we learn from old writers~ that the amazons of that nation, when levying war upon their neighbors, used to improvise beards by arranging their hair upon their cheeks, so that they might look, at a little distance like warriors of the rougher sex, and so strike the more terror to their male foes

It appears from various records, that the present passion for the different shades of red hair—golden, auburn, and bronze-red—has raged very fiercely in different periods and from very early times. The great Italian painters, Titian, Paul Veronese, Giorgione, and others, had gold-red hair “on the brain.” Their beauties were nearly all crowned with a glory of the fascinating tint. In “beautiful Venice,” about the days of Titian, a glorious sight to see must have been the house-tops, from a bird’s-eye view, when the belles of noble rank sat out upon them, catching the golden flashes of the sun with their damp tresses. Vecelli states that they used to procure the desired tint by the following process. They would soak their hair thoroughly with a wash made up of black sulphur, alum, and honey. Then they would repair to the flat house-tops, and, hanging the wet masses of their hair over the wide brims of crownless straw hats, would sit there for hours, until even the darkest-eyed brunette of them all would have her raven tresses alchemized into burning gold. That must have been a wondrous and beautiful sight, out there on the flat roofs of Venice, the morning before some great Carnival ball. Will observers who dwell much in attics inform us whether our American belles recline out upon the housetops, and lay traps with their tresses to catch the audacious radiance of the sun? I look out from my window now, — a back window commanding an extensive view of house-tops, — fiat, some of them, and others of sufficiently gentle slope. I strain my eyes to behold some such beatific vision as might hive dazzled Titian when he emerged from the roof-scuttle of his house, and singled out for a Madonna some fair and fulvous one of the bleachers that were spreading their tresses on the leads below. But, alas! I see no such gorgeous sight. I see nothing more lovely, in fact, than tom-cats and chimney-pots, the sooty tops of the latter of which certainly do not absorb any glory from gilding rays of the warm October sun.

But the rage for golden hair was nothing of a new one in the days of olden Venice. The Greek women had a touch of it, — though it was considered meretricious, if we are to believe Menander, who in one of his comedies makes a man bundle his wife out of doors because she came home one day with her hair stained yellow. And the fashion prevailed among the Roman ladies too; by whom it was adopted soon after the conquests of Gaul and Germany, when the tawny hair of the natives of those countries became quite the thing in the capital of the Empire. To imitate this the dark-haired belles of Rome had recourse to a pomade, the spuma caustica, with which, as Martial tells us, they used to render their locks Teutonic. It seems, too, that yellow hair­-whether natural or otherwisewas notable in the time of Horace, since he inquires, tauntingly, of the fascinating Pyrrha,­"Cul flavam religas comani Simplex munditis?"

Again, so lately as the time of the first Empire, golden or flaxen hair was a folly of the day, and prevailed much in France. A late writer mentions a very old lady of his acquaintance who told him that, when in Paris many years ago, she was acquainted with a lady of great age who used laughingly to say, "Only imagine that I used to be silly enough, when I was a girl, to wear a light flaxen wig!" The lady who told this about herself was a brunette of the darkest shade; and she further stated, that in her young days it was a common fashion for blondes to hide their fair locks under darkcolored wigs. Envy was clearly at work then, and nature at a discount. Red hair, rather than flaxen, seems to have touched the fancy at many periods, both long ago and of later years. In Ireland locks of the most fiery hue have long been regarded by the peasantry as a lovely attribute of beauty. "She 's an elegant lady, good luck to her," some ragged loiterer near a carriagewindow will say. " She 's a mighty fine woman entirely; only it 's a pity but she had red hair." And then there is an old ditty that I remember often to have heard trolled by grooms and ploughmen of the Celtic race, a stave of which runs thus: "Heigh for the apple, and ho for the pear; But give me the pretty girl with the red hair."

Truly the hair of woman is a mysterious and wonderful thing, and one about which hardly anything has been left unwritten, unsaid, or unsung. It seems impossible that any fashion of wearing it can be new. In pictures painted centuries ago we see women with their hair made up in nets, precisely ma fashion that is very general at the present day. From the peatbogs of Ireland coils of female hair have been dug, rolled upon great wooden pins, not unlike the gilt dumbbells passed sometimes through the chignons worn by women of our period. Hair has been padded, in many ages of the world, just as it is padded now. The Roman women had “rats”; and the “Grecian curls “ now so often worn by the loveliest of their age and sex were sported in ancient Greece, not only by the women, but by the men. And in this fashion, too, did other nations of olden times dress their hair. Old French writers record that Theodoric le Jeune, king of the Goths, wore his in long, heavy tresses, — toupets a la Grecque. It was crimped in front, and combed back, and it is easy to guess that the coiffeur royal had no easy time of it while he was making a guy of that young Goth. The Lombards also wore tresses falling over their ears and down upon their shoulders behind; and, apropos of this, here is a legend recorded by some German writer.

Once there was a king of the Lombards, whose name I have forgotten; but as I remember the story, he was a man of noble stature, and took much pride in the heavy side-locks of his luxuriant hair. His immediate body-guard consisted of fifty noblemen, each of them selected for his resemblance to the king in stature and general appearance, and they too wore their hair in tresses like those of their royal master. The queen’s apartments were at a little distance from the palace, and when, after the fatigues of the chase, the king would resort there at even, he usually wore a white mantle wrapped so as partially to conceal his features, and gave a particular countersign to the sentry at the queen’s gate. Now one of the tall body-guard was an enterprising young noble, and he bethought himself of a stratagem by which he might obtain an interview with the queen, who lived in great seclusion, but was reputed as being very beautiful in person, though in intellect rather the reverse of bright. Ascertaining that the king would return at least an hour later than usual from the chase, on a particular day, the young guardsman, who bore a remarkable personal resemblance to his master, wrapped himself at evening in a white mantle, and, having possessed himself in some way of the countersign, passed the sentry at the queen’s gate, and entered the royal apartments. A favoring twilight prevailed there. The air was languid with the odor of essences and mellow fruits, and the audacious guardsman could see that the queen was very beautiful indeed, as she reclined among velvet cushions and sipped the beverage most in fashion among the Lombard ladies of the day, whatever that might have been. On a table before her there was a toothsome spread, — supper for two, — and of this the ambitious young warrior partook. Then he made himself quite at home for an hour or so, till he thought that it might not be safe for him to remain there any longer; so he kissed her most gracious Majesty the queen, — only think of that! — and, quietly withdrawing from the premises, returned to his own quarters.

He had not been gone five minutes when the king, wrapped in his white mantle, strode past the astonished sentry and entered the queen’s apartments.
“Your Majesty does me great honor this evening-” said the partner of his royal bosom. “It is not often that you return so quickly after having kissed me good-night.”
“Ha! ha!” exclaimed the quick-witted monarch, carrying his hand to his dagger; “have we rats here? I think I smell one, and so here goes to ferret him out of his retreat!”

Hastening to the dormitory in which his fifty guardsmen slept, the king entered softly, armed with his dagger and a dark lantern. There, on fifty camp-beds, all in a row lay his fifty doubles, wrapped, apparently, in deep slumber, and looking as like each other as a row of peas upon the half-shell. The king threw the light of his lantern upon the first bed, and, approaching it, laid his hand lightly over the sleeper’s heart.

He sleeps well,” thought he; “the culprit’s heart will scarce beat so lightly as that.” And on he went, along the row of beds, trying each sleeper’s heart as he went, but finding no flutter until he came to the last. The sleep of that stalwart young nobleman was so calm and deep, apparently, that it might have been taken for death, had it not been accompanied by a sonorous and healthy snore; but when the king came to lay his hand over the snorer’s heart, he found it beating like a drum.

“This is my man,” muttered he, between his teeth. “His life’s blood is up in evidence against him, and I will have it.” Then, raising his dagger, he was about to plunge it into the noble young snorer’s heart, when another idea arrested him. “I will not kill him now,” thought he. “Justice before all; and he shall have a fair trial on the morrow. But meantime, here goes to mark him; for I can hardly tell one of these fellows of mine from the other, nor from myself, for the matter of that.” And with these words he gathered together the flowing tresses on the left side of the warrior’s head, and, having cut them off with the sharp edge of his dagger, walked out from the dormitory as softly as he had come.

Morning had hardly dawned when the king, fuming with rage, and bent on vengeance, ordered his fifty pet guardsmen to be paraded before him, while he chuckled inwardly at his own sagacity in detecting and putting a mark on the delinquent the night before. But lo and behold! when the parade was formed, not a man of the whole fifty had locks on the left side of his head; for the gay young guardsman, who was wide awake when the king came to his bedside, had arisen quietly in the night and docked them of their tresses all round. And so the king of the Lombards was balked of his vengeance; for his fifty noble warriors all looked so like each other, and so innocent, there in the gray light of morning, that he could neither point out the man who had the palpitant heart, nor find it in his own to order his body-guard for execution in the bulk.

In the sixteenth century a curious circumstance threw tresses out of fashion in France, — amongst men, at least. Francis I., who wore his hair in that style, met with an accident while engaged in a sham fight with snowballs. He was attacking a position which the Count de St. Pol was defending, each accompanied by his band of followers, when a firebrand, thrown by mistake, (a rather queer mistake that, by the by, not to know a firebrand from a snowball!) caught the king upon the head and burnt off his hair; and so the barbers had plenty to do in clipping away the tresses of the courtiers and young men about town, who of course could not think of wearing their hair differently from the king.

A few artists affect the Greek tresses in our time; but for men the style is considered decidedly eccentric, and it must be rather inconvenient to the wearer, under many circumstances to which men are liable in active life. Cork-screw curls have always wriggled themselves into fashion with men, as well as with women, from time to time. At present they are wholly provincial, and, even in the rural districts, are looked upon as a sign hung out by desperate maiden ladies of uncertain years, alone; but we shall see them in the market again, by and by, when the “waterfall” shall have dried up, and the “rats “ deserted the tottering castle that now beetles upon the summit of my lady’s brow. Only a few years ago it was a common fashion for ladies to train a small curl on each temple, to which it was affixed with bandoline or gum. These appendages were called accroche-coeurs by the French; and heart-hooks indeed they were, suggesting the idea of the barbed steel belonging to the salmon-fly of the angler; while the rest of the lady might have been compared, not unaptly, to the gay combination of silk and feathers with which that deceptive and artificial insect is usually made up.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In