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An 18th-Century Trades Sampler

a photographic essay by 1999 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute participants

Introduction / Apothecary / Blacksmith / Founder / Harnessmaker / Milliner
Printer & Bookbinder / Shoemaker / Silversmith / Wigmaker / Summary


An active social life was important for people of all classes. One's appearance was also very important. Being fashionably dressed meant dressing from the head down. The barber and peruke maker played an important role in keeping Virginians supplied with the latest in hair fashions.

The wigmaker offered a wide range of goods and services in the shop. Wigs and queues (hair pieces usually worn hanging at the back of the head) for men, and curls, braids and knots for women were sold for a wide range of prices. The barber pole in front of the shop advertised the availability of shaving and dressing services. The ceramic and brass shaving bowls were designed to keep soap and water from soiling fine clothing when men came to the shop for barbering services.

A wig or queue was a fashion necessity for men of the gentry and successful businessmen of Williamsburg. Being able to afford a wig, or sometimes several wigs, was a means of showing one's status in society. Even the lesser sort (those with little money to spend) wanted to own a wig or queue. The fashion was so important that wealthy slaveowners also purchased wigs for their slaves to reinforce their own social standing. Wigs, queues and hairpieces were made of goat hair from Turkey, horse hair from China, yak hair from Tibet, or human hair from young women in Europe.

A queue was often the choice for a man who had limited need for a fashionable hairpiece. A queue matched to the color of one's own hair and tied on the head with string provided a less expensive yet fashionably acceptable alternative to a wig. It is important to note that most Virginians were poor farmers who visited the capital city infrequently and had little need for the fashions of the day.

One 18th-century source stated that it took six men six days working from sun-up to sundown to complete a wig. Wigs on display in the shop could be purchased, or a custom fit wig could be ordered. Wearing a custom fit wig required the gentleman to cut his hair very short or to shave his head bald! Measurements taken of a man's head were used to ensure that the proper size blockhead was used to construct the wig.

The wigmaker used nails to attach a caul of ribbon and cotton or silk net securely to the blockhead. Rows of hair constructed by weaving a few strands of hair at a time on a tressing frame were attached to the caul with a simple straight stitch. When all the rows of hair were in place, the hair was curled using clay rods. Finishing and dressing the wig, (trimming and shaping each curl and bunch of hair), completed the process.

Wearing wigs was fashionable for over 100 years. Most men of all classes wore wigs or queues, especially during Publick Times when the courts were in session. Some 50 men practiced the trade of barber and peruke maker in 18th-century Williamsburg. They saw to it that the men, and occasionally the ladies, of the better sort had hair that was always dressed in the latest and best fashion.

Introduction / Apothecary / Blacksmith / Founder / Harnessmaker / Milliner
Printer & Bookbinder / Shoemaker / Silversmith / Wigmaker / Summary