Last year, when I finally took the plunge and sheared my precious dreadlocks (which I had grown rather attached to after over a decade of loving cultivation), I was confronted with a new situation – human hair is a commodity. I say this because everyone who learnt of my separation from my 10 year growth offered the same response – ‘Did you keep them? You could sell them you know.’
I never did sell my hair. Somehow it just never felt right (the sale, not the hair), but if I had, I would have been taking my first baby steps in an industry which stretches back at least 5000 years. The Ancient Egyptians constructed wigs out of human hair, amongst other things, and wore them as much to denote rank as for reasons of hygiene. The English word wig is derived from the 16th century French word for a head of false hair – perruque. The perruque became known colloquially as a periwig, and the peri was eventually dropped to leave simply wig by the later part of the seventeenth century.
Wigs were a big deal in the eighteenth century, as evidenced by the number of ‘periwig makers’ appearing in our catalogue. To have a large wig was a sign of affluence and to wear a wig was not a gender specific act. Having said this, women’s wigs of the time did tend to be larger and more elaborate than their male counterparts. These voluminous hairpieces required hair – lots of it – and the heads of rural working class people provided the main source. Perhaps there was not enough homegrown hair to meet the demand, for there is evidence that hair was also being imported from across the Channel (PC 1/3/84)
This letter was sent to the Privy Councillor (who at that time was William Coventry, the 5th Earl of Coventry) on 27 October 1720 by an unknown Londoner who simply signed the document ‘A.B’.