Hairstory

By Scott Roeben

Hair has been with us since the Beginning. Or, rather, on us from the Beginning. Things were much different in the Beginning. Things were capitalized for one thing, mostly to make them sound more important. But throughout all the changes that have taken place since the Beginning, and through the Middle Part and now in the present, which due to inflation cannot afford to be capitalized, hair has always been there.

For example, William Shakespeare, a well-known, bearded writer used the term "shag-haired, crafty kern" in one of his plays. Hair played an important part in many of Shakespeare's plays, in fact. As did kerns. You can always pick a kern out of a crowd. They are the ones that appear craftiest.

But hair does not stop there. Pick any period in history. Go ahead. All right, other than 1955. Not a good year for hair. And something called "Marty" won the Best Picture Oscar that year. Not a great year for anything, really. Except for Elvis Presley. Who had hair. Ah, the circularity of the universe.

In 1500 B.C., things were slightly different. In Egypt, a shaved head was considered the ultimate in feminine beauty. Egyptian women removed every hair from their heads with special gold tweezers and polished their scalps to a high sheen with buffing cloths. Egyptian men, on the other hand, were busy with more important matters, such as doubling over with laughter after seeing the bald Egyptian women. They were also busy throwing together a pyramid or two. Although I am not saying that women had nothing to do with the pyramids, because I am sure that these wonders of architecture needed buffing, and the Egyptian women apparently had all the buffing cloths.

Several weeks later, Alexander the Great took place. He was a great man, if you like the kind of man that kills people as casually as some people water their gardens. Alexander the Great decreed that his soldiers should keep clean-shaven so the enemy couldn't grab them by the beards and stab them with their swords. It is fascinating that one of the greatest military leaders of the Middle Part was afraid that his men might not be able to withstand hair-pulling on the battlefield. He was probably also concerned that his enemies might gain some advantage with the other ingenious strategic tactic of that era, namely taunting an enemy by saying "Nanny-nanny boo-boo."

I read that the Greeks in the time of Alexander liked blonde hair as much as we do today. Men and women alike bleached their hair with potash water and herbs, creating a reddish-blond color. It seems that our modern hair care product companies could learn a few things from the Greeks, like how to speak Greek, for example. And what potash water is. My reference source (e.g., a guy I know) reveals (only after bribing him with a burrito) that potash is "any of various salts of postassium." I cannot be sure of this, however, as I believe my source may have been hyped up from eating those candy necklaces at the time.

Anyway, the Greeks liked hair. Their view of facial hair, though, differed greatly from that of the Romans, especially during mourning. The Romans let their beards grow during mourning, but the Greeks did the opposite. The Romans and Greeks were always at odds about things like this.

"We are responsible for the Byzantine Empire," the Greeks would say.

"No you're not," the Romans would say.

"Speak up," the Greeks would say, "after all, we are in Greece, some distance from Rome."

"The Byzantine Empire was our idea," the Romans would yell, "because if it wasn't, how do you explain Constantinople being established by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great?"

"Hey, was he related to Alexander the Great?" the Greeks would ask.

"You have the wisdom of an Ottoman Turk," the Romans would say. "Besides, we don't have time to argue with you. We have our hands full with the Macedonian epoch, a time of territorial consolidation and cultural flowering."

Things would pretty much degenerate from there.

There were really no exciting developments in hair until the Renaissance, when fashionable aristocratic Italian women shaved their hair several inches back from their natural hairlines. All right, so maybe "exciting" is not the right word. Besides, what time did people have for hair when they were spending so much of their time deliberating about what to wear to the Protestant Reformation?

But exciting things did happen to hair during the 18th century, I promise. During that period, in England, women's wigs suddenly became quite large. Many reached heights of up to four feet. They were dusted with flour (the wigs, not the women as far as historians know--although that changed during the Victorian era). The wigs were elaborately decorated with stuffed birds, replicas of gardens, plates of fruit or even model ships. Sometimes they were so elaborate, they were worn continuously for several months. They were matted with lard (again, the wigs) to keep them from coming apart, which made mice and insects a hazard. The fad died suddenly when a hair-powder tax made their upkeep too expensive.

Meanwhile, Louis the XIV had fourteen personal wigmakers and about one thousand wigs. Such extravagance was common with people who had numbers as last names, apparently.

But the fascination with hair has not been reserved only for European countries, or wherever that Byzantine Empire was. In fact, to preserve their ornamental coiffures, geishas in ancient Japan slept with their heads in bags filled with buckwheat chaff. In case you were curious, you can still purchase buckwheat chaff anywhere fine potash water is sold.

At some point along the way, barbers happened. Barbers at one time combined shaving and haircutting with bloodletting and pulling teeth. In fact, the white stripes on a field of red on a barber pole represent the bandages used in the bloodletting. Reassuring, isn't it?

Eventually, the Civil War was upon us, so heavy that it knocked the wind out of us and fractured our sternum. During this time of unrest, sideburns became popular. Sideburns were named after General Ambrose Everett Burnside, the inventor of the breech-loading rifle, who wore his facial hair in that now familiar configuration. Burnside was also the Governor of Rhode Island. Now it is a requirement that all political representatives of Rhode Island must wear some sort of silly facial hair, unless they invent something with the word "breech" in it.

Also during the 19th century, somewhat later than the Middle Part, but weeks away from the present, Josephine Clofullia was born. She was possibly the most famous bearded lady of all time and a prominent attraction in P.T. Barnum's side show. She modeled her beard after Napoleon III, who was flattered. In fact, he was so touched by her tribute to him, that Napoleon III offered to purchase a number for her to use after her name as well.

Medical professionals now inform us that Josephine Clofullia, and other bearded women of the time, probably suffered from a medical condition called naevus pilosus. With this ailment, enormous moles or birthmarks form and great amounts of hair grow out of them. Frankly, medical professionals should mind their own business from now on. Especially when we are trying to eat our lunch.

What does all this mean?

Well, it's hair. I hope you didn't get the impression you were going to extract something profound from this. Because if so, you're not much smarter than an Ottoman Turk.

Whatever that might be.


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Scott Roeben, 1999, 2000. All rights reserved.