Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sailors' Hair

There were a lot of assumptions that I had going in to this project. Among them was that sailors wore long queues bound tight down their backs. This was in no small way influenced by the detailed Pirates and Patriots of the American Revolution, originally published in 1984 and an introduction to life at sea during the American War of Independence for generations of young readers.

For the record: almost nothing on this page is correct.

To be fair to Keith C. Wilbur, he was well intentioned and immensely readable for a young audience. Nonetheless, Wilbur's work was not academically rigorous. Abundant primary source images produced in my period of study directly contradict that idea that sailors wore long and tightly bound "rattails."

Detail from A Marine & Seaman fishing off the Anchor
on board the Pallas in Senegal Road
Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.

Detail from A View of ye Jason Privateer, Nicholas Pocock,
c1760, Bristol City Museums.
The purpose of cutting hair short is unclear. It is easy to assume, and perhaps correct, that cutting hair to shoulder length and lower prevented that hair from getting wrapped in the lines with which sailors must necessarily work.

Seamen relaxing on the Pallas, Gabriel Bray, 1774, National Maritime Museum.
In the Bray image above, we see a "seaman" wearing a long, tightly bound pigtail in 1774. However, his hat is that of the marines, and all of Bray's other images clearly depicting common sailors shows them with short hair, as in the image below.

Seaman Leaning on a Gun on the Pallas, Gabriel Bray, 1775,
National Maritime Museum
One of the reasons sailors may have avoided long pigtails was that such queues were identified as distinctly French.
Detail from Ann Mills, Served on Board the Maidstone Frigate,
R. Graves after unknown artist, original date unknown, National Maritime Museum.
In the above image, the possibly fictional female sailor Ann Mills holds the decapitated head of a Frenchman with a long queue. In the image below, a sailor humiliates personifications of the Dutch, Spanish, and French by using the Frenchman's severed queue to whip a Spaniard.
Detail from The British Tar's Triumph, Thomas Colley, 1783, British Museum.
Short hair may also have been seen as a marker of the subculture of common sailors, like their blue jackets, cocked hats worn reversed, and walking sticks. American sailor Jacob Nagle, then serving in the Royal Navy, remembered the justice meted out to the first lieutenant of the 74 gun Ganges, probably in early 1784. Variously described by Nagle as 'a villen and a terror to a seamen,' and 'a rail tarter to a seaman':
[Edward Riou] was coming a cross the fields to the hard way in the night. He was atack'd by three sailors, and they got him down and cut his long hair off, close to the neck, though he was a strong, powerful man, but they did not hurt him any other way, but he could never discover who they ware that done it.
Perhaps this was a way of reducing Riou to the level of the seamen he so terrorized.

If short hair was indeed a cultural marker, the transition from the short hair worn by sailors for most of my period of study may have left a superstitious imprint when the transition began to long plaited pigtails. From the memoirs of Samuel Kelly, relating an incident in 1783:
I requested one of my shipmates to comb and tie my hair, for which purpose I sat under the bow of the boat. While we were at this work the master came forward to see what we were about, and being very superstitious, he flew into a great passion and gave us to understand that it was no wonder we experienced such a foul wind when such trash (as me) was combing his hair in the night.
Kelly's anecdote comes shortly before the publication of the first image I'm aware of that clearly shows a long, tightly plaited pigtail:

The True British Tar, Carrington Bowles, 1785, collection unknown.
Notably, Bowles' piece depicts a sailor wearing a wig, and not his own hair. Nonetheless, it is a departure from the usual sailors' short bob wig. Around 1790, just as my study ends, pigtails become more common.

Detail from Ban-yan Day on board the Magnificent; or,
Pease Porridge hot from the Coppers!
, John Nixon, 1789, British Museum.
I still do not know when precisely the transition began from short hair to long pigtails, but it was clearly late in the eighteenth century.


  1. Some thoughts;
    @ Wilbur - This is the exact kind of uncited folkloric bullshit/'bullfacts' I encounter every time I speak on sailor fashion to Tall Ship or maritime history buffs. Wonderfully vivid details like queue lengths denoting seniority, or tarred pigtails abounding - and no footnotes ever offered. And yet, Ryan Clark keyed me onto 18th century French voyageur wrapping their long 'tails' in eel skin, so never say long as it's cited!

    @ Bray images; Marines and officers are shown wearing long wrapped queues in the Bray watercolors, since this was an established military fashion for several decades by this point. And sure, it's *practical* in keeping the hair back and together, but it's also just an established way to make a professional soldier's hair look stylishly sharp. Seamen by contrast wore less fashionable cropped/bob haircuts, even after bob wigs fell out of fashion, and I would see this look as a simple fashion trend, one aided by the ease of grooming shorter hair aboard ship. With both, I see them as less about getting caught in blocks (you'd be hard pressed to jam your head into a block unless you're furling halfway over the yard or loosing sheets, in my experience). It's far more about group identity and fitting in with recognizable hairstyles. I almost always favor the social over the practical in explaining why humans wore what they did...

    @ Nagle quote; This is perfect in showing how the seamen literally 'cut' Riou down to size, cutting off his fashionably long hair and forcibly assimilating him into their subversive 'sailor fashion'.

    @ Samuel Kelly - sailor superstitions are fascinating! Let's talk about cauls sometime...

    @True British Tar; I *strongly* doubt the 'True British Tar is wearing a wig, since wig wearing had declined across most of Anglo-American society by at least the 1760s, and was largely out of fashion but for older, conservative men and occupations (think English barristers, even today). For more on this see, Emma Markiewicz, ‘Hair, Wigs and Wig Wearing in Eighteenth Century England’, (PhD dissertation, University of Warwick, 2014). pp. 256-257.

    Further, the 1798-99 Aaron Thomas journal has a couple delicious quotes on this very issue of queues, which as a mature seamen he abhored seeing younger men grow their hair to new 'vain' lengths. He says it groomed lice, was a sign of vanity, and was dangerous aboard ship, etc. See, Thomas, Aaron, ‘Journal, June 15 1798 to October 26, 1799’, (University of Miami Otto G. Richter Library Special Collection), pp. 1-336.. Available at: Accessed 18 May, 2016. pp. 88, 287-288.

    So in general, I would say (this from a paper of mine last year), that "Sailor's iconic headwear also changed with larger trends, as 1750s-era short bob wigs worn with small ‘apple-pasty’ cocked hats, (often worn backwards), transitioned by the 1760s-70s to natural hair and short-brimmed round hats, then by the 1780s and 90s to queued ponytails paired with taller round hats, giving way in turn by the 19th century to cropped neoclassical haircuts and top hats."

    I'm not sure what point I'd make with this other than mariner's hair was part of a larger sailor fashion which was a self-conciously conspicious fashion for a marginal group. And that the dominant image of long sailor queues is a muddled perpetuation of genuine Napoleonic imagery and later folklore.

    Tell me what you think!

    1. Generally I agree with you, but I stand by my assertion that the "True British Tar" is depicted wearing a wig. The queue is off-center hanging at an unnatural angle and (more importantly) the sailor's true hair is peeking out over his forehead and loose, unlike the wig. This is not to say that wigs were common in 1785, merely that Bowles intended to depict his sailor with a wig. Art, as we agree, is not a mirror of precisely how sailors appeared, but how artists wanted them to appear.

  2. Wig curlers were found on His Majesty's Ship Invincible (British Royal Navy), a ship wreck in the Solent just off the Isle of Wight. The ship sank in 1758. However, there were not enough for all 600 crew to be wearing wigs. It was likely only the oficers were wearing them.