Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Hair Today, Wig Tomorrow

 Blockhead, big wig, and powder room; words as familiar today as they were three centuries ago. Few trades have contributed to contemporary jargon as the perukes or periwig makers of the 17th and 18th centuries. A gentleman’s wig was his crowning glory, a substantial monetary investment, and a symbol of social status. So much so that gentlemen, and occasionally ladies, would have their heads shaved in order to ensure a perfect fit.
If one was wealthy enough, a client would have a block of wood carved in the shape of one’s head so that the preferred wigmaker would have a custom-made form on hand to create or re-style his client’s wigs. At night, sans one’s own natural locks, a nightcap was worn to keep their pate warm. Aristocratic boys as young as seven and girls as young as ten might receive their first wigs.
The 18th century was considered the golden era of wigs and, at its height, dozens of wig shops catered to Virginia’s well-to-do in the Colonial capital. The cost of a wig was no small matter, representing a full month’s wages for many. For the price of one wig, a man could buy a half acre of land in town, a team of oxen, or a dozen pairs of shoes. Some wigs were so valuable it cost two to three years’ wages. Those who could afford them represented a very small percentage of Virginia’s population, but 18th century wigs were in such demand and so labor-intensive, numerous tradesmen labored from sunup to sundown, seven days a week, to keep their clients coifed to perfection.
Colonial Williamsburg’s Barber & Peruke Maker’s Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street represents that owned by Edward Charlton, a prominent perruquier, whose account books reveal he catered to some of Virginia’s most prominent leaders—Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Wythe. Within its walls, Master Wigmaker Betty Myers, Journeymen Wigmakers Regina Blizzard and Teresa Lyons, and Apprentice Debra Turpin ply this time-honored trade today.
As visitors file into the shop, Betty seamlessly slips into the moment, assuming the personification of Mary, an 18th century Irish lass with a quick tongue and sharp wit. Her talent to create a wig, while keeping up a running commentary of what life was like for 18th century wigmakers, barbers, and hairdressers, is a talent she’s been honing for more than three decades.
“The wigshop opened in 1950 to the public and has been servicing the entire foundation by supplying and taking care of every wig and hairpiece seen in the village,” Betty explains. “We currently have 600 wigs and 450 hair pieces in service or stored.”
Betty, who joined Colonial Williamsburg in 1981, was in a unique position of not having a journeyman or master of the trade to train under. “When I joined the shop, it was primarily an interpretative venue. We weren’t making wigs, merely demonstrating some fundamentals of wig making.” Betty was bothered by the fact there was very little wig making taking place, so under Gail Cawthorne’s leadership, who was a licensed beautician by trade, Betty began learning the craft. When Gail left not long after, Betty was suddenly on her own.
Using 18th century periodicals, portraits, and what research material she could find, Betty gradually recreated the trade. Later, she traveled to England and Scotland to validate her techniques, ensuring that her instructions to other wigmakers were indeed authentic. Since then, other trips to Germany and Denmark have helped to refine and reinforce the shop’s now well documented processes for making truly historical recreations.
Unlike her 18th century counterparts, who would have begun on the bottom rung of the peruke ladder by sweeping floors, apprentice Debra Turpin (now in her seventh year) has had the opportunity to vary her activities, develop hands-on skills as the needs of the foundation have arisen, and travel abroad with Betty to research wig making. In order to advance to journeyman, she must complete a reproduction wig, from start to finish, without assistance.
“When an 18th century gentleman would walk into our shop, the first thing we would do is sit down to discuss his needs,” Betty explains, slipping into her role as interpretive guide. “Is he a merchant or a physician perhaps? His position may require a particular style of wig. Once we determine the style of wig desired, we would select the type of hair to be used; yak hair from Tibet, horse hair from the Orient, goat hair from Turkey, or human hair that comes from young girls in northern Europe where, because of their diet and climate, they are bred for their hair, which is considered the most superior human hair.”
Once a client had selected a wig style and hair type, their head was shaved, and a patron could choose from a standard size blockhead or have one custom-made by a wood carver for his unique head size and shape. Most gentlemen would know their block size, very much the way we know our shoe size today. Once a blockhead was selected, a diagram or block plat would guide the wigmaker in the design, layout, and density of the wig, most likely dictated by the client’s pocketbook.
“Clearly one did not go about in public with a shaved or cropped head; that was reserved for folks of lesser means,” Betty continues. “A lingerie cap was worn over the bald pate until such time as the wig was ready.”
Each weft of hair is hand-woven on a tressing frame, sewn onto a caul, then curled, and pomaded. Pomade was used like mousse to stiffen the hair and facilitate styling. Consisting mainly of sheep’s lard mixed with botanical extracts, pomades came in pleasing scents such as orange blossom, lavender, bergamot, marchel, and bay rum.
“We have a volunteer, Karen Archer, making these pomades for us, using 18th century recipes, and they are quite lovely,” Betty points out. The fragrances are light and subtle, the texture reminiscent of fine lanolin.
Wigs worn during daytime were often matched to one’s own hair color. The fashion-conscious might own several wigs in a variety of colors. For formal or evening occasions, proper attire demanded white or powdered wigs. A powdered wig is not pristine white and the difference is obvious, but for those who did not possess a white wig, powdering with fine milled wheat, rice powder, or orris root was the obvious choice.
A bobbed wig with four to five rows of curls was most popular; a simple queue was often the choice for a gentleman with limited means. Curls were either smooth or frizzed, according to preference. Occasionally, ladies too wore full wigs, although most preferred their own locks supplemented with false curls or braids, entwined with pearls, ribbons and other adornments. On special occasions ladies wore elaborate wigs that often sported a theme, emulating the wigs flaunted by the French and English aristocracy. They were heavy affairs; weighted down with pomades, powders, and ornamentation.
As wigs and hairpieces became soiled or misshapen, peruke hairdressers would begin the laborious task of refurbishment: removing the gossamer hair netting, which helped keep curls in place; removing dozens of hair pins and adornments and padding that was used to provide pouf; before carefully hand washing every strand in fine castile soap from Spain. Once the wig was dry, it was restyled. Today, the foundation’s wigs are just as carefully cared for, albeit washed with commercial shampoos and conditioners.
If the wig shop represents the very best of 18th century peruke making, the John Coke building two doors down serves as its logistical hub. Here, wigs and hairpieces are stored, washed, and refurbished. Jessica Demarco, inventory clerk, maintains a computerized database tracking the whereabouts of each wig. A wipe board denotes short and long term work schedules, from individual interpreters to large productions. Four volunteers and two interns from the College of William and Mary provide assistance as needed.
In the basement, feathers, human hair, and polyfil are stored in a freezer, wigs in hat boxes, and hundreds of accessories in plastic bins. With the need for wigs and hairpieces on the rise, the wig shop cannot possibly meet demand with all handmade wigs. Currently, 65% of the wigs in service are synthetic; so well crafted it takes a keen eye to tell the difference.
By the time America won its independence, wigs had become less elaborate, albeit still in demand. Fashion continued to be heavily influenced by the fashions of European aristocrats. In 1795 Britain levied a tax on hair powder of one guinea per year, effectively spelling the beginning of the end of the powdered wig era.
Despite increasing demand within Colonial Williamsburg, “this trade is a dying art,” says Betty. “As far as we know, nowhere else in America are wigs being made of this design and caliber, using these techniques. The four of us are all that remains of a dying trade and that’s scary.”
As another tour group crowds into the shop, it’s obvious visitors find the art of wig making fascinating. Betty’s dedicated staff and volunteers are determined to keep this dying trade alive for the next generation. Who knows? As William Hutton once penned in his poem ‘The Wig’, “Clouds, days, and fashions rise and wane; and only set to rise again.”
Special thanks to Betty Myers and her knowledgeable staff, and to Joseph Straw of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  

Are you tired of doing the same old thing every summer? Here’s something traditional, fun, hands-on and it floats! 
It’s Family Boatbuilding Week at the Deltaville Maritime 
Museum the week of July 13-18th! Come out and watch this family, team building, spirit evolve into boats built with pride!
It all started 13 years ago from a challenge by Wooden Boat Magazine to develop a way to bring families or groups together to preserve the skills of wooden boat- building using an achievement oriented project – and to get more families on the water! The multi-day camp provides an inexpensive introduction to boating on the Museum’s waterfront. It begins with the basic construction of the “Wright Skiff” and ends with the family’s first outing on the water in their very own boat. The Deltaville Maritime Museum’s Family Boatbuilding Week is the only remaining week long school, still 
using real wood planks, with the camp atmosphere and traditional methods.
Ten boatbuilding teams are set up with stacks of lumber, hardware and paint for the five day camp to build either a 12’ or 14’ version of the iconic “Wright Skiff” originally designed and built by Deltaville boatbuilder, John Wright.
 John England, Deltaville Maritime Museum’s boat shop director and Chuck McGhinnis, FBW coordinator and the boat shop volunteers instruct and guide the “build teams” through the entire construction process.
During the years before our road system, most people who lived on the waterfront traveled more by water than they did by road. The Wright Skiff was the traditional light utility vehicle of its day, designed to carry passengers and smaller loads of cargo along creeks and rivers where most people’s businesses and homes were located.
Camp starts with choosing team names; “Oar Else,” “One Fish, Two Fish,” and “Faster than Slow,” and could consist of grandparents with grandkids or a gaggle of cousins, a group of friends or the old fashioned nuclear family. Prior to their arrival, the coordinator had given the build teams a list of tools that they needed to bring with them to the camp. The construction begins with cutting, fitting and assembly. The first few days are spent sawing, sanding, hammering and applying adhesives. There will be special tasks for each member of the family or group. Family members develop a strong sense of pride in each other as they see the value of each person’s contribution during the construction of the skiff. By Thursday, the watercrafts are in their final stages of completion, taking their finished form and lines. On Friday, the skiffs are painted their final color, boat names lettered and the boats are launched to allow the planks to swell (hopefully) watertight. On Saturday at 11am, teams jockey for a position behind the starting line, listening for the blast of the F.D. Crockett’s air horn, and the “Great Skiff Race” begins. Families maneuver their freshly constructed boats around the windward mark during the “free for all” competition. Who will cross the finish line first?
After the race, Master of Ceremonies hands out trophies for awards such as Most Original, Most Colorful, Leakiest and Most Authentic. Following the awards ceremony, all are welcome to join the fish fry social to hear all the great stories of the week’s experiences of boatbuilding. Fish Fry Social advanced tickets are $10.00 for adults and $5.00 for children under 12 years old.
This is a wonderful way to reconnect and bond with family in a wholesome, unplugged way. Events like Family Boatbuilding Week allow families to get back to experiencing nature and the free spirit of the water. Nothing feels quite like the pride you have paddling around on a boat made with your own hands.
We encourage everyone to come to the charming village of Deltaville, also known as “The Boating Capital of the Chesapeake.” Charter a boat at one of the many marinas and feel yourself relax on the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay. Rent paddleboards or kayaks and enjoy the coastal wildlife. Shop at our beach and nautical shops. Grab some seafood in restaurants or wholesale to take home.
It’s so popular that 2015 Boatbuilding Camp is already booked, but reservations are being taken for 2016. There’s plenty to do July 13-18 at the Deltaville Maritime Museum. 
Enjoy being a spectator watching the boatbuilding develop, bring a picnic, walk the trails in the nature park or hang out 
on the pier walk by the water and tour the museum.
For more information or to visit Family Boatbuilding Week contact Deltaville Maritime Museum and Holly Point Nature Park by phone, e-mail or website. The Maritime Park is located by land at 287 Jackson Creek Road, Deltaville, VA and by water at Mill Creek, Deltaville, VA. Turn right across from the Citgo Station on Route 33, or access the “How to Get to Us by Water” info on the website.
Website www.deltavillemuseum.com, Email: museumpark@verizon.net or call (804) 776-7200.