Timeline Tuesday: An 1880s Hair Hoax

Five young women style hair in a tent in this photo taken near Monroe, Nebraska around 1905. RG5762-16


It was the style during the 1880s and 1890s for women to augment their own long hair with carefully matched hair from other humans or animals. Nebraska women usually obtained this additional hair through local grocers. The trade must have been lucrative, because storekeepers sometimes inserted ads in their local newspapers offering to fill “hair embellishment needs.”

During the 1930s workers of the WPA Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration recorded the following reminiscence of a Nebraska woman whose desire for such embellishment in the 1880s led to a joke at her expense. “A pioneer lady in Saunders County, who, because of the embarrassing nature of her narration wishes to remain anonymous, has the following story to tell about the hoax that was played on her one day in the ’80’s when she felt the need of ordering a hair switch. She says: ‘Nearly everyone was wearing extra hair in those days because the prevailing style of hair dress required it. I had never worn any hair except my own but was now beginning to feel old-fashioned when I went to church or social gatherings where most of the ladies had enough hairfalse and their ownto stuff a mattress. But I didn’t like the idea of going into a store and placing an order for the additional hair I desired. It seemed to me to be something to be ashamed of, like getting false teeth or artificial breast forms.’ “‘However one morning, when I must have felt unusually brave, I clipped some sample hairs from my head and tied them together with a pink ribbon after which I put them in an envelope. This envelope was placed on the front room table where it wouldn’t be forgotten when we went to town that afternoon for our supply of groceries. . . . ‘ “‘I first bought groceries when I arrived in town that afternoon, then I ambled over to the dry goods section of the store to order my switch. It seemed as if everyone in the store was following me as I did so. Two of the town’s cattiest women were ranged along the dry goods counter, where they were pretending to look at this and that but in reality following my movements with their curious eyes. They were the town’s most notorious busybodies who were always hunting for a scandal.’ “‘My face flushed with embarrassment as I placed my order to the clerk within their hearing. . . . What I saw when he pulled out its [the envelope’s] contents made me wish the floor would cave in; because, instead of holding my carefully selected tresses he had a bundle of horse hairs and pig bristles that were tied with the same pink ribbon I had used for my hair. . . . After I had recovered from the shock I grabbed them from his hand and rushed out of the store.'”

The husband was identified as the practical joker who had switched the hair in the envelope. His wife concluded, “I didn’t go back to the village for months after this hoax had taken place, because I knew everyone in the community heard about it and was laughing at me.”

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