Were Wigs on their Way Out?

During the Revolutionary War? Here in Salem? I’m curious about wigs: for two centuries, one in which I have some expertise (the 17th), and one in which I do not (the 18th), wigs were big. Yet I don’t know much about them, especially of the Anglo-American variety. I have long been curious about a gravestone here in Salem featuring a be-wigged soul effigy, and the other day I was searching through lots of an upcoming Skinner Auction and became enchanted with a portrait of a man with a very fitted wig from about the same time, and I thought: who is wearing wigs and who is not? I know that wigs were on their way out in Britain after the very consequential Hair Powder Act of 1795, but I thought that democratic sentiments might have hastened their departure decades before over here–but I think not. There was definitely a hierarchy of wigs ( long and full for lawyers, shorter and tied for merchants, “bob-wigs” for clerics) worn by men across the pond: did it apply over here? The gravestone effigy of John Crowninshield (d. 1777) in the Old Burying Point on Charter Street here in Salem is curious to me because of the very conspicuous wig, which is hardly ethereal and quite a contrast with the wings–but also because I had it in my mind that Salem merchants just didn’t wear wigs, even of the restrained variety. They were too manly, too daring, too independent, too busy. But then I came across a portrait of one of the most independent-minded of Salem merchants, John Derby, with a new American flag proudly waving in the background, and realized I was wrong. Wigs were still quite in, even while the British were out.

Crowninshield Photo

Wig Crowninshield Gravestone

Wigs 1773 LWL

Skinner Portrait

John Derby Portrait Skinner

The be-wigged effigy of John Crowninshield, 1777, Old Burying Point, Salem; Wigs by Occupation, print by M. Darley of London, 1773, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University; C.F.C. Brandt Portrait, c. 1778, Skinner Auctions; American School, Late 18th Century Portrait of a Ship Captain, with Distant Ship Flying an American Flag (presumed to be John Derby), Skinner Auctions. Also see several posts of wigs–including one on Salem wigmaker William Lang–by J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.


2 responses to “Were Wigs on their Way Out?

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