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. It was 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. It came 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 is The Courtship of Washington by John C. McRae. It 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. It was "the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut," Krulwich writes. With charming illustrations, artist Wendy MacNaughton brings to life Washington's routine. It included the gathering, enthusiastic yank back. That was to try and broaden the forehead. Then there was the 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. It gave it 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. It involved a robe to protect clothes and a cone to protect the face. Sometimes special bellows were used to puff the powder evenly. But Washington's use of powder raises a 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. With 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 (210)
  • vemaurionp-orv
    2/16/2016 - 12:50 p.m.

    i think that was funny when they said he had put powder in his hair to make it white

  • tated-hol
    2/16/2016 - 01:05 p.m.

    George washington is a very good president .i can't believe that he put powder in his hair.that is a good article

  • graceb5-pla
    2/16/2016 - 01:09 p.m.

    During the times of George Washington the nobility style was to powder and do your hair. He was no exception to the United States rule. His hair was shockingly white, like snow(simile) Today we do the same thing, but the same an energy is more on styling with heat and dying.

  • austinh-ver
    2/16/2016 - 01:15 p.m.

    How did Washington do his hair. This is the dumbest article I have ever read. he pulls it back and it curled around his neck yea I knew that. It is still cool to know how he did his hair.

  • christianc-ver
    2/16/2016 - 01:20 p.m.

    We remember his hair as white because he used a lot of powder in his hair.

  • misealc-fra
    2/16/2016 - 01:28 p.m.

    we remember Washington's hair as white because he powdered it and it always stayed puffy because it was the grease and made it look puffy and curly.

  • emilyp2-fra
    2/16/2016 - 01:31 p.m.

    We remember George Washington's hair as white because he wanted to try a military style called a queue.

  • davidk-luk
    2/16/2016 - 03:01 p.m.

    Becuse he ether had powder in his hair, or he had a wig on. His hair is acherly redish-brown.

  • ximenar-hol
    2/16/2016 - 04:04 p.m.

    In all of his pictures it shows he has white hair. He also put powder to make it look like that.

  • maggiem-hol
    2/16/2016 - 04:18 p.m.

    We remember his hair as white because in almost all the painting of him it is white with his hair style

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