How George Washington did his hair "The Washington Family" painted by Edward Savage. (Smithsonian/Wiki Commons)
How George Washington did his hair
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George Washington's hairstyle is iconic and simple enough that most Americans can probably recall it in an instant - or they can at least refresh their memory by pulling out a dollar bill or a quarter. It was pulled back from his forehead and puffy on the sides, colored gray-white, perhaps like many wigs of the day. But Washington never wore a wig. At National Geographic, Robert Krulwich writes that he was stunned to learn this fact from Ron Chernow's book Washington: A Life. Krulwich explains:
 
"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."
 
The painting, The Courtship of Washington by John C. McRae, was painted in 1860, long after Washington's death in 1799. But a project out of the University of Virginia called The Papers of George Washington also confirms that the first president's natural hair color was light brown. The style he favored wasn't fancy, though it may appear so to modern eyes. It was a military style called a queue, "the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut," Krulwich writes. With charming illustrations, artist Wendy MacNaughton brings to life Washington's routine - the gathering, enthusiastic yank back to try and broaden the forehead, fluffing of the hair on the side and the powdering.
 
Even if Washington didn't wear a wig - as some of his contemporaries sported - he did powder his hair to get that white look. It may also have been the fashion in America to wear less elaborate wig styles, if one wore a wig at all. By the late 18th century, wigs were starting to go out of style. So Washington could have been fashion-forward in his military simplicity. Still, the powdering was a chore involving a robe to protect clothes, a cone to protect the face and sometimes, special bellows to puff the powder evenly. But Washington's use of powder raises the question, how did he avoid the look of permanent dandruff? Krulwich writes:
 
"(Betty Myers, a master wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia), 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."
 
It's possible that the same solution that helped Washington's hair rolls stay fluffy also kept the powder sticking - greasy hair and lots of pomade. Bathing and washing hair frequently wasn't a popular activity, so powders also solved the problem of smelly unwashed heads - they were perfumed. It's a good thing fashions change.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do we remember George Washington’s hair as white?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (64)
  • thomase5-pla
    2/16/2016 - 01:54 p.m.

    George Washington's hair was real, he pulled it up and curled it and powered it to keep it white. This relates to my life because my hair is real and I put pomade in my hear and make it look cool.

  • julianc-bag
    2/16/2016 - 06:14 p.m.

    We think of George Washington's hair as white because people hair at that time was always white .

  • shaniyas-smi
    2/17/2016 - 12:01 p.m.

    this was a great paragraph about george washington.

  • katelynp-eri
    2/17/2016 - 01:16 p.m.

    I wonder how George Washington would have done his hair if he was alive today?

  • tristans5-pla
    2/17/2016 - 10:53 p.m.

    Most Americans would recognized George Washington's hair because we see it all the time on dollar bills and quarters. That hair was not a wig. In a painting of him he is portrayed with reddish brown hair and that was his true hair color. His hair style was a military style called queue. He did powder his hair to make it look white. We remember George Washington's hair as white because in most paintings his hair is white.

  • laurenc-bag
    2/18/2016 - 08:56 p.m.

    We remember George Washington's hair as white because he powdered it and styled it like that all the time because it was in fashion back then. He's only portrayed as having white hair because people only drew or painted portraits of him while his hair was styled.

  • lucib-bag
    2/19/2016 - 09:03 a.m.

    We remember it white because that is how is looks in all the paintings. Also that back then mostly all the men wore white wigs or white powder in their hair to make it smell better. Although his hair was light brown he powdered it to look white because it was fashion.

  • loganw5-smi
    2/22/2016 - 11:54 a.m.

    Hair in paintings back then was almost always white. Also it just seem to make sense thinking his hair was white because of all the wars and things.

  • axelm-wil
    2/24/2016 - 11:37 a.m.

    I would like to wonder what kind of hair style would gorge washington hair style would be like right now if he was still alive

  • alexanderm1-wil
    2/24/2016 - 11:42 a.m.

    We remember his hair white because most pictures we see of Washington has his hair white. He made it look white by putting white powder in his hair every day. Most people thought that his hair was a wig because most people in the century wore wigs.

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