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Whiskerology: Hair and the Legible Body in Nineteenth-Century America


This dissertation argues that in the United States during the nineteenth century, men and women from different regions, class backgrounds, racial groups, and religious traditions shared an extraordinary faith in the diagnostic and classificatory power of hair. Hair was popularly understood to be capable of quickly and reliably conveying important information about a stranger’s identity or character; it could indicate whether that person was male or female, Christian or heathen, powerful or subordinate, healthy or diseased, black or white, or even courageous, ambitious, or criminally inclined. In some cases, hair was considered more reliable than other indices that have traditionally dominated the study of group and individual identity in modern American history, such as skin color.

Hair was also a synecdoche for its owner. It encapsulated an individual when it was growing on the head or on the face, and continued to do so when it was shorn from the body and then stored in a book, album, or a piece of jewelry; exchanged between family and friends; or examined under a microscope. From a nineteenth-century perspective, hair was a part of the body. Its unusual properties relative to the rest of the body—such as its ability to resist decay after separation—made hair particularly significant to nineteenth-century Americans anxious to specify and identify meaning in the physical body.

Hair is nearly ubiquitous in the human world, and it has been meaningful in different ways to varied cultures and communities. However, what was distinct about hair in nineteenth-century America was that the messages hair conveyed were seemingly written by the body itself: they were external communications between the public and the bearer—not the internal articulation of the identity the bearer wanted to project, as hair would come to function in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This dissertation proposes that an understanding of hair, and the meanings it conveyed, allowed Americans to feel more confident as they traversed streets, rode trains, and negotiated markets—confident that the hair they saw on strangers’ heads had the power to reliably tell them who was who, and who could be trusted.

This dissertation is organized into five thematic chapters. Chapter one provides a prologue to the dissertation’s nineteenth-century story, tracing how the meaning and communal regulation of hair in English North America changed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century through an examination of the long-standing debate over whether it was acceptable for men to wear long hair. Chapters two, three, and four examine three corners of American life to demonstrate the breadth of the nineteenth-century system of hair legibility that this dissertation proposes. Chapter two shows how cultural understandings of men’s facial hair turned the Bearded Lady of the late-nineteenth-century freak show into a symbol of contemporary struggles over women’s social and political power. Chapter three considers something more ordinary: the material culture of hair collecting, and how locks of hair preserved in books, letters, jewelry, and museums functioned as synecdochically as the hair still attached to the body. Chapter four explores the research and writing of the nineteenth century’s most famous hair scientist, Peter Arrell Browne, and considers the consequences of his work for contemporary understandings of race. The final chapter, Chapter five, asks how nineteenth-century Americans tested the limits of hair’s legibility and reconciled the tension and unease surrounding its malleability, focusing in particular on false hair, disguise, and criminology. The epilogue suggests how the meaning of hair changed in the twentieth century.

Ultimately, this dissertation demonstrates that in the nineteenth century, hair counted as part of the legible body. Hair was important to the people from whose bodies it had grown, but it was equally important to the people around them: it conveyed meaning to strangers about their identity and character, providing a sense of scientifically-approved security in a world that felt increasingly unknown and unstable. Moreover, once it was severed from the body, hair helped to cement relationships across great distances. Hair’s grounding in the biological gave it legitimacy as part of the legible body, yet its plasticity also gave Americans a raw material for self-invention and transformation. The physical properties that made hair different from the rest of the body also meant that it was uniquely situated to become the focal point of characteristic anxieties of nineteenth-century urban and interconnected life: truthfulness, reliability, disguise, and deceit. In this way, to understand hair is to understand the ambitions, hopes, and fears of ordinary nineteenth-century Americans.

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