Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.