Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bad Hair Day

I recently bought an ambrotype (in a gutta percha case) to add to my photographic collection. The sitter has very unkempt hair, and as I look at this image, I wonder if it might have been too much for the photographer to produce a mirror. "Oh, my, has the wind picked up? Why don't I allow you some time to get yourself together before we begin the session?"

Of course the photographer might not have had a mirror. In our own age of materialism, it's hard to imagine that 50 years before this photograph was taken, the average American family lived without carpets or curtains, usually owned only one or two candlesticks, and had just enough chairs in the house for family members to sit down to a meal. Jack Larkin's fascinating book, The Reshaping of Everyday life, 1790-1840, says this about the households of 1800:

"... Most walls were bare, as well; American houses were strikingly poor in images. Appraisers found fewer than one household in ten with a painting, print or engraving. Only looking glasses, or framed mirrors, broke the empty expanse of walls, and most houses had no more than one or two. Their rarity made them important objects, prominently placed in the parlor or sitting room. Not only was a looking glass crucial for respectable grooming — a family without one surely faced some difficulty in looking presentable — but it also helped eke out scanty illumination by throwing back reflected candlelight."

Perhaps in the immediate following decades, grooming — particularly of the hair — retained a lower standard. And so I submit to you a gallery of prominent political celebrities of the mid-1800s. You can decide for yourself.

William C. Bouch, Governor of New York, 1843-44

Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States, c. 1850

Henry Clay, Senator from Kentucky
and two-time nominee for Presidency of the United States, c. 1850

James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, 1859

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, 1858

Horatio Seymour, unsuccessful Democratic candidate
for Presidency of the United States, 1868

And for good measure, I'll throw in the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed circa 1850, on a good day.



  1. Very funny--I love the increasingly damaged combs. To be fair, you should look for comparable images of women before you decide on the existence of combs and mirrors in early America.

    Combs are often found among ancient artifacts--here is a nice one from New Kingdom Egypt in the Cleveland Museum of Art:{91ADCD8F-992A-45A5-8599-70835467DF5E}&coid=3552287&clabel=highlights

    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Love the way you have illustrated this Mark. The deteriorating plastic comb and finally a stick. Our shelves are so ladened with shampoos, conditioners, products to straighten the hair making it silky, smooth and giving it bounce!!! It is good to be reminded of how fortunate we are today. When I was young I recall that there was Sunsilk shampoo and Vosene Medicated shampoo, if you did not have the money then people used green kitchen soap.!!! I wonder what was available to the men in your photos? They probably hardly ever washed their hair, people used to put flannel sheets on the bed for the winter and they stayed there without washing until the late Spring - unimaginable to us today.

  3. That is fascinating. It makes one wonder, too, if being too well kept was the sign of a dandy and if politicians would prefer being thought of as down to earth. That being said, I have an ancestral portrait in which the sitter's hair is tamed and in which he is devestatingly handsome. He was also a politician so that negates my theory. ;-)

  4. Very interesting history. It's also very amusing pairing the images with the comb each of them must have used. Longfellow's twig even appears to be cherry which is indigenous to our area so that is a smart detail.

    I'll have to remember when I do my ambrotype to leave my hair is such a state.

  5. Hello Parnassus - Your observation is an astute one, sir. The male sex corners the bad hair market of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Why is that? You and I should team up for a big Federal grant and after a very long study, come up with the definitive answer! Perhaps it had something to do with bonnet-wearing.

    Thanks for the link to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Visitors will simply need to create a password to view this lovely site in depth.

  6. Hello, Rosemary - I well remember the hair products of my own youth (the 1950s) and they were all essentially greasy, to give the look of shiny sleekness. My brothers and I used something called Wildroot, and what it did for hair, it also did for pillowcaes!

  7. Dear Anonymous - You are absolutely right about a candidate's untidiness being equated with being down to earth. Abraham Lincoln was famously ungroomed, often forgetting to tuck in his shirt or to button garments. As he became more famous, he became aware of dressing up and slicking his hair before he sat for a photograph. When he sat for an 1857 portrait in the Chicago studio of Alexander Hesler, he had "...plastered his hair down smooth over his forehead..."* Ironically, Hesler ran his fingers through the hair and took a photo of Lincoln with very unruly hair. And for that reason, I did not include the Hesler image of Lincoln in this posting's examples.

    *quoted from Alexander Hesler, Lincoln: A Picture Story of His Life, Stefan Lorant

  8. Hello, Steve - I actually did have a tintype made of myself! I sat for a prolonged period in an authentic 19th century studio, with one of those head clamps behind me. You can see the image and read the story at my sidebar. Just click on the purple box that says "TINTYPES."

  9. Hello Mark,
    Loved all the posts before this one, especially the Etiquette from Catherine the Great - #3. The word gnaw may have had a different meaning. I imagine that it would be quite unsettling for the host to see your guest gnawing at your furniture.
    As for the Bed Hair Day, it's too funny, but I can unfortunately relate to this post all too well. Being of two different cultures, Asian and French, my head is a combination of straight thick hair and thin curly hair. Thank goodness for modern day products.
    Happy New Year,

  10. The bad hair Hall of Fame for yje 1850's! Love this post Mark as it gives an insight into a lot of things that we take for granted now. Our society maybe has changed but bad hair has not!

  11. I wonder if shops had glass fronted windows? Surely, a reflection could be glimpsed as one went about one's business?

    Maybe not.

    These photos remind me of how I look in the morning with my hair sticking straight up. But no matter how bad I look, my dog thinks nothing of it. Thank goodness!

    Love those little combs you put above the pix, Mark. :)

    We take a lot for granted here in 2012.

  12. Hello, Anyes - The clever fellow who cuts my hair says that it is his experience that everyone wants a head of hair other than his own. Maybe it's due in part to thinking that other people couldn't possibly work as much at staying presentable as we do. (It obviously wasn't such a great worry in the 1850s.)

  13. Hello, David - I think if we were able to take a time machine into the past, it would be the everyday things (that are different) that would make the greatest impression. That's because it is the everyday things that we do indeed take for granted.

  14. Hello, Yvette - Just once I woke up with a bedhead that was better than the look I had when I went to bed. So I faced the world that way. (I should have played the lottery that day!)

  15. there was period in my life when i went for that unkempt poet look. and gosh i never realized it before but lincoln was kind of a hottie.

  16. Dear Mark, A well coiffed wig would have come in handy in each case. The comb was a very clever addition. No wonder we look forward to your blog posts. Regards, Gina

  17. Hello, Lynne -

    As an avid reader of Lincoln biographies, I've been struck by the fact that his contemporaries often described him as either terribly homely or rather handsome. We tend to veer to the homely side because our only images of him are ones that were long-posed still shots, when actually Lincoln had a face that was more animated than most. He was a very good mimic as well, and emotions on his face could change from second to second. And I think the animated face of course does draw us in.

  18. Dear Gina - You've already made my day, and it's only starting! :o) Per your comment, you are of course assuming that those would be quality wigs being shipped out to the hinterlands!

  19. Well -given the day and age - wasn't the bad hair a case of 'hat hair'? I find my own hair in the winter is generally about the same! LOL

  20. Hi, Stefan - Of course one didn't see a lot of buzz cuts in those days! :o)

  21. hahaha this is such a great post! I just happened upon your blog today and I love it, so much information and's great! I hope you have a wonderful rest of the week!!
    Twirling Clare

  22. Thanks, Clare! Laugh ten times a day, and you're sure to live at least a year longer.

  23. Hi Mark,

    You can believe from this moment on I'll be looking for more bedheads in old photos. This topic and the way you presented it is hilarious. You missed out on a career in comedy.

    Bad hair, but I see they took time to shave their faces, and put on pressed clothes. They probably didn't floss either, eh?

    No teeth showing. Popular not to smile for photographs back then, or was there more to it Mark? Like, bad really teeth?

    I enjoy learning and laughing through all of your topics. Thanks for keeping us informed and entertained!

  24. Hi, Linda - I also find it strange that men of considerable stature would put on nice clothes and then completely ignore their hair! And I shudder to think what their breaths must have smelled like. I do know that people like Thomas Jefferson carried metal toothpicks around with them. As for the lack of broad smiles, don't forget that early photographs required extended sittings of absolute stillness. I suppose people found out quickly that holding a broad smile for minutes on end would result in a very unnatural look.