What’s Up with the Powdered Politician Wigs?

(Last Updated On: June 23, 2021)

If we asked you to think of a politician or a judge, you probably immediately would think about partisanship, lobbying being bribes with extra steps, and also a ton of scandals. But if we told you to stop think about the existential dread of global nationalism and democratic backsliding, you’d eventually jump to those big, poufy powdered wigs. So now that we’re thinking of something dumb and not some kind of collapse, why did people wear powdered wigs? 

Powdered Purpose

Powdered wigs were worn by colonial Americans in the 18th century–so basically as soon as colonists made landfall. Makes sense, since colonial Americans at the beginning were basically just Europeans–and they’d been wearing poufy wigs across the Atlantic for like 100 years prior. 

Originally, these wigs were made of goat or horse hair–though sometimes they were made from human hair. Ones made from human heads were way more expensive though. These suckers were super hard to clean–and as a result they were basically never cleaned. Ever. So on top of colonials never bathing and smelling really bad, their wigs would have smelled like garbage too.

Drafting the Constitution must have been a real test of nose-blindness. 

Anyway, the hair powder in the powdered wig was used to keep the wigs smelling less bad. Oftentimes the powder was scented like lavender or citrus. It would also be colored for whatever people wanted. White was the most common for politicians though, since 18th century people thought it made one look more mature and wealthy. Generally speaking, looking older was considered fashionable in colonial America. Plus, people liked big hair–which also made one look high class. 

Plus people had a lot of lice, and cleaning lice out of a wig is way easier than getting them out of your head. 

Syphilis

Alright, but why was Europe getting wigged up if Americans were just carrying it over. 

Well in the 16th century Europe had a pretty bad syphilis outbreak. Even back then, Europeans were on the “have big hair and curls” train. Now if you know anything about syphilis, you know that syphilis and having big hair don’t mix. 

Actually, syphilis doesn’t mix with having hair at all. So people were wearing wigs to cover up hair loss. They also helped cover some of the open sores syphilis left on their faces. 

King Louis XIV suffered from hair loss at the age of 17–and King Charles II had his hair grey early. Both of them had a huge staff of wigmakers to mask their natural hair. With royalty wearing wigs, those in the royal courts also wore wigs to appear regal. Then that made its way down to the public (those who could afford wigs, that is). 

With everyone wanting a wig, they got more expensive as there are only so many wigmakers. Everyday wigs cost almost an entire week’s pay for the average commoner, with the poufy ones costing almost 30 times that (this is probably where the term “bigwig” comes from, to make fun of people who spent a lot of money on giant wigs). Imagine spending half your yearly salary on a wig. 

Phasing Out

Here’s a fun fact, in 1795 colonial Americans needed to get an annual certificate to use hair powder. It was like $122 per year (in today’s US dollar). This is one of the direct causes for wigs becoming less popular in colonial America. They returned to being less poufy so people would use less powder. So shorter hair became in fashion and eventually wigs were phased out.

While early American presidents wore powdered wigs, George Washington never actually did. Instead he powdered and curled his own hair. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe did wear wigs though (Jefferson a little more sparingly). 


Speaking of bigwigs, see if you can recognize these bigwigs here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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