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George Washington’s Oh-So-Mysterious Hair

That hair you’ve seen so many times on the dollar bill? That hair he’s got crossing the Delaware, standing by a cannon, riding a horse in those paintings? His hair on the quarter? On all those statues? The hair we all thought was a wig? Well, it wasn’t a wig. “Contrary to a common belief,” writes biographer Ron Chernow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington: A Life, George Washington “never wore a wig.”

I’m stunned.

Illustration of George Washington on a quarter
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Turns out, that hair was his. All of it—the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck. What’s more (though you probably already guessed this), he wasn’t white-haired. There’s a painting of him as a young man, with Martha and her two children, that shows his hair as reddish brown, which Chernow says was his true color.

Picture of a painting of George Washington with Martha Washington and her two children
The Courtship of Washington, John C. McRae, 1860 Image Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The whiteness was an effect. Washington’s hairstyle was carefully constructed to make an impression. It wasn’t a sissyish, high-society cut. It was, back in the 1770s and 1780s, a military look, something soldiers or want-to-be soldiers did to look manly. “However formal it looks to modern eyes,” Chernow writes, “the style was favored by military officers.”

Illustration of George Washington in profile, emphasizing his long hair, which is down in this illustration
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Think of this as the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut. In Washington’s time, the toughest soldiers in Europe, officers in the Prussian Army, fixed their hair this way. It was called a queue. British officers did it too. So did British colonials in America.

Here’s how it worked. Washington grew his hair long, so that it flowed back toward his shoulders.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair being gathered before putting it into a ponytail
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Then he’d pull it firmly back, broadening the forehead to give him, Chernow writes in his biography, “an air of martial nobility.” The more forehead, the better. Nowadays we notice chins. But not then. Foreheads conveyed force, power.

The look was achieved with appropriate muscularity. In the British Army a tough hair yank was a rite of passage for young officers; it was common to yank really hard.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair being pulled backwards before being put into a ponytail
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

A military journalist, Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, describes a British soldier from that time who says his hair and skin was pulled so fiercely, he didn’t think he’d be able to close his eyelids afterward.

Once gathered at the back, hair was braided or sometimes just tied at the neck by a strap or, on formal occasions, a ribbon. Washington would occasionally bunch his ponytail into a fine silk bag, where it would bob at the back of his head.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair tied in a bow
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Then he would turn to his side hairs, which he “fluffed out,” writes Chernow, “into twin projecting wings, furthering the appearance of a wig.” George Washington “fluffing out”? That’s such an odd image. Artist Wendy MacNaughton, my partner in crime, sees it this way:

Illustration of George Washington in profile, emphasizing his curled hair
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

You should close your eyes and see him fluffling in your own way.

Next question: How did those side curls stay curled? Betty Myers, master wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, wrote to me that it was common to grease one’s hair with pomade. Oily hair helped. We don’t know how often Washington shampooed, but the less he showered, the firmer his fluffs.

And now, to the whiteness. Washington’s hair wasn’t splotchy. It was like a snow-covered mountain, evenly white. This was accomplished by sprinkling a fine powder on the head. There were lots of powders to choose from, writes Myers, including “talcum powder, starch, ground orris root, rice powder, chalk, [or] even plaster of paris …” Washington probably used a finely milled (expensive) product, which was applied, cloud-like, to his head. To keep from gagging in a powder fog, it was common to cover the face with a cone of coiled paper, like this:

Illustration of George Washington covering his face with a cone while he powders his hair
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

The powder was sometimes applied with a handheld bellows. An attendant would pump a cloud of powder from a small nozzle and let it settle on the hair. But Washington, says biographer Ron Chernow, would dip a puff, a snakelike bunch of silk striplings—into a powder bag, then do a quick shake over his bent head. Maybe a slave would do this for him. When being powdered, it was traditional to wear a “powdering robe,” basically a large towel tied around the neck, to keep from being doused.

Picture of a drawing of a woman having her wig powdered
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled 'The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande', showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Which leaves one last puzzle. Washington was a careful, self-conscious dresser. When he appeared at the first Continental Congress, he was the only important delegate to wear a military costume, choosing, Chernow writes, the “blue uniforms with buff facings and white stockings” of the Virginia citizen militia while adding his own “silk sash, gorgets, [and] epaulettes.” Later, he’s described dancing at balls in black velvet. So if Washington liked dark clothes, how’d he keep the powder from showing? The man would have been covered in dandruff-like sprinkles. (Editor’s Note: One of our readers, Mike Whybark, shared a painting that makes me wonder … Maybe his shoulders did look a little snowed-on.) Myers, the wig scholar, says that’s why Washington bunched his ponytail into a silk bag, to keep from leaving a white windshield wiper splay of powder on his back when he was dancing with the ladies (which he liked to do). As for keeping the powder off one’s shoulders, how Washington did that—if he did do that—nobody could tell me. Probably every powder-wearing guy in the 1760s knew the secret, but after a couple of centuries, whatever Washington did to stay spotless is lost to us.

Illustration of George Washington, on the left, with white powder on his houlders, and on the right without white powder on his shoulders
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

We can stare all we like at his shoulders and wonder, but the truth is, there are some things about our first president we may never, ever know.

Illustration of George Washington winking with his hair perfectly fixed
Illustration by
Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Wendy MacNaughton draws people, cats, bottles, scenes, faces, places. If, totally out of the blue, I call her and say, “Can you imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebook or George Washington getting his hair done?” she just giggles and draws. And a week later, I’m doing a happy dance. If you want to see what she’s up to right now, you’ll find more of her work here. And if you enjoy presidential hair stories, here’s the other Big Guy, Abe Lincoln, on a day in 1857 when he clearly lost his comb. Hairstylists shouldn’t look—it’s too scary.

11 thoughts on “George Washington’s Oh-So-Mysterious Hair

  1. The article mentions plaster as being a possible powder used. If that’s the case wouldn’t adding a spray of water not only help hold the look but also keep the powder from coming loose.

  2. Grow shoulder length reddish brown hair.
    Pull the hair back in a firm yank.
    Give the forehead a noble air.
    Bag the ponytail to bob frank.
    Grab the side hairs and fluff them out.
    Keep the curls curled by adding grease.
    Avoid getting wet and no doubt,
    Hold in shape this master hairpiece.
    Add authority color right.
    Stick a paper cone over face.
    Cloud the hair in fine powder white.
    Pose for history, hair in place.

    ‘Twas no wig for George Washington,
    A real hair hell to get it done.

  3. Hair powder was often flour based though, and that would have been seriously messy without something to hold it in place. In 1795, when the war with France made it difficult to import grain, the British government placed a heavy tax on hair powder in the hope that it would release a large amount of flour for food. This was one of the main reasons why people stopped powdering their hair and adopted simpler styles. Relevantly to this post, one of the biggest exemptions from the powder tax was for military officers.

  4. Don’t forget that we aren’t looking at photographs, but artist’s renderings of a fellow that was important. I doubt they would have included powder dust, just as many complexions were ‘fixed’ and subjects were made to be more fashionable in terms of the ideals of beauty.

  5. I would think that the powder would stay put due to all the oils and greases and pomades in the hair. One solidifies the other to the point that “stiff” really does happen? Just a thought…

  6. The powder stays in the hair and does not flake off because of the pomatum, not because of any hair bag. Pomatum was made with a mix of various animal fats plus other ingredients to make it smell nice. Here are some links from people who have actually done research on this.



    LBCC Historical: Authentic Cosmetics and Apothecary also recently posted a video on youtube showing how she uses pomatum and then powders her hair. (Last I checked the video was taken down due to a sound glitch, but hopefully she will post it back up soon!)

  7. Actually, there probably wasn’t as much “flaking” as you would think, because oily hair holds powder REALLY REALLY WELL. Ask anyone who’s ever used dry shampoo. You can turn your whole head brilliantly white, give it a good dog-like shake, and never have another puff of powder come off it again, if your hair was oily to start with. Oil and powder–especially something as fine as talcum, cornstarch, or flour–mix to form a slurry or dough, depending on the proportions.

    He then also wouldn’t have needed to wash his hair as often, since every time he combed the powder out, it would have taken with it much of the oils and dirt he accumulated during the time his hair was powdered, and given how harsh soaps of the time were, that meant his natural hair would last longer on his head!

  8. Powder *did* flake off during the course of the day, & you can see it in period paintings, like this one of George Washington from 1795 by Gilbert Stuart – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Washington_by_Gilbert_Stuart,_1795-96.png

    Even looks like a trace of powder on Washington’s left shoulder in the official portrait (in the White House) also by Stuart – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gwashington.jpeg

    If you look closely, you’ll start seeing it in many portraits of 18th-c. men.

    The chapter on wig powdering in this book on 18th-c. hair has a lot more details http://18thcenturyhair.com/

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