‘Hair Bought’: A brief history of hair

Over the last ten years in the UK there has been a plethora of books of historic photographs. Their titles are invariably and deliberately evocative, and include: Britain’s Lost Cities; Lost Victorian Britain; and Lost London, 1870-1945. Their production and consumption seems to demonstrate strong current interest in historic, or heritage, images.

One book, published in 2015, Picturing England: the Photographic Collections of Historic England, has a particularly striking cover image. It is of a street scene in Bristol, in 1866. It evokes a distant, even medieval past. In subject matter and style it is redolent of Eugene Atget’s now-famous photographs of Paris taken somewhat later, during the period 1898-1926. The weird, almost otherworldly character of that Bristol street also put me in mind of something else, something fantastical: the set design for the 1920 German film, The Golem.

Steep Street

As I looked more closely at the Bristol photograph I noticed that in the shop window, located at its centre, is a sign: it reads ‘Hair Bought’. I was intrigued. I had recently researched the life of a man born in 1869 whose family owned a business in Glasgow – a hair factory. The history of hair – animal and human – is an interesting one that has received little attention compared with, say, the history of fur – a more overtly glamorous, political (and politicised) subject.

There are areas of overlap of course: any catalogue of artists’ materials will include brushes made of hair from animals more associated with the fur trade, such as squirrel and ‘sable’ (in this case actually a variety of weasel). People have harvested and traded in  animal fur for centuries. Pig and hog hair (or bristle) went into the manufacture of brushes, typically for scrubbing. Being of good length and shape retention, horse hair (primarily from the tail) could be put to a wide variety of uses, from hats to window blinds to upholstery filling. The advent and development of the internal combustion engine contributed to a decline in the horse population of the UK and other western countries. Manufacturers simply imported even more horse and other hair from Russia and China. Subsequently industry would come to rely increasingly (though never quite exclusively, even up to the present) on synthetic materials.

Of all hair, that of humans has the most complex and complicated history. In her recently published book Entanglement, anthropologist Emma Tarlo deciphers some of its myriad meanings, contemporary as well as historical. She reports on a visit to China, and a meeting with the owner of one of the world’s largest wig and toupee manufacturers. She recounts a controversy that erupted in Orthodox Jewish circles in 2004. A rabbi banned wigs worn by married women for religious reasons: the hair from which they made had originated in India, and he deemed it impure and unsuitable. She also tells us about BuyandSellHair.com, possibly the world’s largest online market place for human hair. Sellers – women almost without exception – emphasise their healthy diets and lifestyles. They invest their hair with personal qualities, and enhance its commercial potential.

Individual online transactions make up, however, only a tiny fragment of the now billion-dollar trade in human hair. Much of its originates in Asia, where it earns its owners only a pittance. By the time it reaches the market place, all trace of its origins has been effaced. It has become another globalized commodity. This is nothing new, Tarlo tells us; the gathering of human hair has always been a big, and backstage, business, little known to those outside the trade.

barbersHistorically, hair gathered in Britain and Europe came from hairdressers, obviously, but also from hospitals, prisons, workhouses and even convents. Pedlars bought and sold hair, as they did many other things. Parents auctioned their daughters’ tresses at hair markets. In the early 1920s, America experienced a kind of craze for hairnets made from human hair, originating in China.

Hair has long been a marker of identity: personal, gendered, religious, ethnic and racial, with positive and negative connotations. In an address to the Anthropology Society of Paris in 1879, one academic claimed that the practice of classifying hair dated right back to Herodotus. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, hair classification fed into theories of racial hierarchy justifying slavery, colonialism, apartheid and eugenics.

Hair loss is a symbolic as well as physical and emotional experience. So too is hair removal, whether voluntary or involuntary. The sight of hair severed under coercive conditions has the power to shock, as many visitors to Auschwitz have testified, after seeing mounds of human hair on display there. Nothing else, according to Tarlo, conjures up the absent bodies of victims more directly than the mangled fibre left behind.

In  the end, trimmed and shorn, bought and sold, advertised in shops or online, hair, it’s worth remembering, is still a body part.

Some Useful Reading:

Philip Davies, Lost England, 1870-1930 (2016)

Mike Evans, Gary Winter and Anne Woodward, Picturing England: the Photographic Collections of Historic England (2015)

Emma Tarlo, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair (2016)

John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University

John Stuart






This entry was posted in British history, European History, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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