About a Boy and a Wig Curler

Archaeological small finds can tell us a great deal about how status, gender, and identity are situated in and on the body.

In December 1759, John Page noted in his diary that after studying his bible in the morning, he traveled to residence of one Mr. Wallen. Page paid Wallen 15 pounds for his first great coat, a new pair of breeches, a pair of knee buckles, and half a cake of soap. From there, he returned to Harvard, to conclude his studies on “an exceedingly cold day.” Page was 21 years old upon purchasing his new coat and in his second year of study at Harvard. He received his AM in 1764 and later became a minister in Danville, New Hampshire. His diary includes bits of intriguing detail about his daily life as a student—the amount he owed to the college butler for his consumption of coffee, tea, and chocolate; medicines used for alleviating his sore throat; his time spent attending lectures; and the nine shillings he paid to a Mr. Merrill for a pair of curling irons for styling his wig.

How one covers and adorns the body is a powerful statement of political and personal identities.

Dress was a notable part of Page’s life, as much as it is often notable in our own. We all wear clothes: to survive the environment, for bodily comfort, to distinguish “self” from “other,” for modesty and allurement. Dress is personal, symbolic, and multifaceted; it is tied to taste, emulation, production, and consumption. How one covers and adorns the body is a powerful statement of political and personal identities. Page’s great coat must have been a welcome sight after trudging through the streets on that exceedingly cold day, but it also marked him as a young scholar in Cambridge, where a modest uniform was prescribed by college rules that reflected the institution’s Puritan beginnings.

Archival texts, such as Page’s diary and historical images, provide rich detail about colonial American fashion; enough so that just the right kind of military button or shoe buckle needed for any historical re-enactment or steamy Scottish time-travel series can be accurately crafted and employed. The bits of information about Page’s daily life that come through the document—the way he clothed and cared for his body by keeping clean (or as clean as one could be at the time) and fashionably curling his wig, connect us to his life as a student at 18th century Harvard. But there is more to add to this story that comes from the study of the archaeology of clothing and adornment. Those infrequent finds in the archaeological record—the lost button, a loose glass bead—provide a material and sensory link to the past in ways that word and image cannot. It is in the archaeological record that we learn about the details of the colonial body: what was fashioned and put on the body in relation to sumptuary laws, how fashions were manipulated or not, and how a student at 18th century Harvard curled his wig.

The interpretive potential of small finds has been largely underdeveloped, leading to their marginalization as a category of material culture.

Only in the most favorable environmental conditions are whole pieces of clothing preserved in archaeological contexts. What is most often found by archaeologists, then, are “small finds,” the remnants of the fashioned body: fasteners, such as buttons and buckles; adornment, including jewelry and amulets; and fragments of cloth or clothing as well as objects used to fashion the body, including hair combs and wig curlers, spectacle lenses, cosmetics, and the tools used for making and mending clothing, such as thimbles, needles, and lead fabric seals.

Yet the rarity of clothing and adornment artifacts has influenced their interpretation. Too often, these objects only receive cursory attention in archaeology and are viewed as curiosities, without consideration for their meaning or use specific historical contexts. As a result, the interpretive potential of small finds has been largely underdeveloped, leading to their marginalization as a category of material culture. Rather than being merely illustrative of past fashion, small finds bear relationship to the body that wore them and how that body moved through social and physical landscapes.

Eighteenth-century artifacts of clothing and adornment from Harvard Yard excavations. Clockwise from bottom left: shoe buckle fragments, lead fabric bale seal, white clay wig curler fragment, bone button, bone hair/lice comb, silver earbob, and glass bead. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM 99090073. © President and Fellows of Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 987-22-10/100133; 987-22-10/100138; 987-22-10/100194; 987-22- 10/100195; 987-22-10/100151; 2005.17.2098; 2009.4.233

In the small finds recovered from excavations in Harvard Yard, the shoe buckle fragments (one fancy and one plain), a small bone button, and a white clay wig curler seem to fall into the prescribed, albeit plain dress mandated for students and tutors, but a small glass bead, a silver ear bob, a lead fabric seal, and a small hair comb suggest a more nuanced interpretation. College laws and other archival documents indicated that students were required to wear a plain style of dress that included a cloak or gown and should not wear “any Gold or Silver Lace, Cord or Edging upon their Hats, Jackets or any other Parts of their Clothing, nor any Gold or Silver Brocades in The College or Town of Cambridge.” Clothing fasteners such as the shoe buckles and bone button were used in colonial daily life. Small bone buttons, such as the one shown here, were commonly used for undergarments, while shoe buckles were used as closures on leather shoes. We expect to see these kinds of small finds items in a colonial archaeological assemblage as they were items commonly used in dress in the 18th century. Yet these small finds also provide more detail on the fashion and bodily concerns of the time. For example, health and cleanliness was ever an issue as evidenced by the hair comb. These small bone combs with tightly spaced tines on one side were used for styling hair and wigs but also for removing lice, which was a common affliction in colonial Massachusetts. The lead fabric seal was removed from a bolt of wool cloth, manufactured in England and sent to the colonies. While we know that Page’s coat was made elsewhere, the seal suggests that some—perhaps those who could not afford a tailor—were making clothing on site. By the 18th century, wearing powdered wigs was no longer a finable offense and Page’s account indicates that there was some level of pride in having a fashionable wig as part of one’s attire. Other items found have us scratching our heads (and not because of lice). Fanciful dress, such as glass bead jewelry, a silver ear bob, and even a fancy shoe buckle, was eschewed at Harvard. Who would have worn a glass bead necklace or a silver ear bob? How was that fancy shoe buckle viewed by others at this historically Puritan space? These are stories yet to be told. These small finds as an assemblage, however, tell us how students and tutor fashioned themselves as members of the 18th century Harvard community, while also hinting at the other individuals who occupied this predominately English male space but about whom we know little: the women living, working at, and visiting (perhaps furtively) the college as well as servants, enslaved Africans, and Native American students.

Small finds deserve our attention. Despite challenges of preservation, the archaeology of clothing and adornment is vital to historical interpretations of how sexuality, status, gender, desire, and identity were situated on and in the body. A continually growing body of archaeological research employs different theoretical and methodological perspectives to consider artifacts of clothing and adornment, from the gendered significance of dress in funerary contexts to the iconography of jewelry and its social significance. The goal is to be attentive to object and body, and to consider small finds in light of other forms of material culture and archival resonance. Only then can we begin to reflect on John Page’s pride in his crisply curled hair and his new great coat.

For more on the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project, please visit the online exhibition, Digging Veritas on the Peabody Museum website.

Diana DiPaolo Loren is director of academic partnerships and museum curator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University and co-director of the Archaeology of Harvard Yard Project. Loren is a North American archaeologist specializing in the colonial period Southeast and Northeast, with a focus on the body, health, dress, and adornment. She is the author of The Archaeology of Clothing and Bodily Adornment in Colonial America (2010).

Further Readings

Beaudry, Mary C. 2006. Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Eicher, Joanne B., and Sandra Lee Evenson, eds. 2014. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society. New York, NY: Fairchild Publications.

Loren, Diana DiPaolo. 2010. The Archaeology of Clothing and Bodily Adornment in Colonial America. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

White, Carolyn L. 2005. American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680–1820. Oxford: Altamira Press.

Cite as: Loren, Diana DiPaolo. 2017. “About a Boy and a Wig Curler.” Anthropology News website, September 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.604

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