You may have heard tales of the highwaymen who, long ago, roved the old British highways in search of gold and silver coins to steal. But, it turns out, that there was also another treasure they sought: wigs.
In response to a piece on status symbols that have since fallen out of favor, commenter kernow shared this note with us on one of the hidden dangers of 18th-century wig-wearing — thieves. Thieves, everywhere:
Wigs. The bigger the better. In the 18th century at the height of their popularity a big wig made of human hair would cost around the same as the average yearly wage. They were what highway men were after when thy robbed nobles. Also where we get the term “bigwig” as only the very rich could afford a big wig. The fad died out very quickly in the UK when a tax was introduced on them around the same time as the French was killing all it’s nobles.
The 18th-century serial The Gentleman’s Magazine (SIT DOWN, Maxim, this has nothing to do with you) took note of the problem in a delightfully pun-filled series, noting that in London’s roadside robberies often “the hair-raising was literally executed” (Hey-O!). The highwaymen had even devised a rather neat trick to get at the wigs, in which they sliced a hole in the back of the carriage, all the better to grab at the passengers’ wigs.
The end result was typically rapid flight, as the highwayman escaped with his loot, leaving behind an angry victim. Not every theft, however, was quite so fraught. In Fiona McDonald’s book Gentlemen Rogues and Wicked Ladies, she shared this bit of sleight-of-hand engaged in by an early wig-thief:
One such entertaining encounter occurred when Everett fancied a bob wig that sat atop the head of a Quaker seated in a coach with a number of other passengers. Everett pulled it off the man’s head and swapped it with his own second-hand tie wig (which he had bought, not stolen) . . . The robbery ended with all parties going their separate ways without any hard feelings (except perhaps from the Quaker). The highwaymen even gave the coachman 1s to drink their health.
Of course, most encounters with a highwayman did not end so cheerily — and with good reason. Quality wigs were not only breathtakingly expensive to buy, making them was an incredibly labor-intensive process, from acquiring the hair to the actual construction.
Colonial Williamsburg’s wigmaker notes that the construction of even a single wig was a nearly week-long process, involving multiple people: “One 18th-century source stated that it took six men six days working from sun-up to sundown.” And then, of course, there was the difficulty and expense of getting the hair itself, which was often imported, plus the effort of customizing it to the precise specifications of the purchaser’s head and tastes.
At such a high cost, it’s perhaps no big surprise that there was an underground market for wig purchase. The wig-stealing phenomenon finally did come to an end, though, right around the time wigs started to fall out of fashion.
Image: Doctor Syntax Stopt By Highwaymen, Thomas Rowlandson 1820 / The British Library