General George Washington: The Hairdresser
General George Washington, stationed with the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, was concerned about his troops. More specifically, he was bothered by their looks. It was August of 1782, and the men had recently followed his orders to spruce up their clothing and hats. But Washington still felt there was still something lacking in their appearance.
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A Real Problem
General George Washington, stationed with the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, was concerned about his troops.
More specifically, he was bothered by their looks. It was August of 1782, and the men had recently followed his orders to spruce up their clothing and hats. But Washington still felt there was still something lacking in their appearance.
The remaining problem, in Washington’s opinion, was the men’s hair. To present the proper “martial and uniform appearance,” the soldiers needed to wear their “hair cut or tied in the same manner.” Doing so, as he put it, “would add much to the beauty” of the army.
Portrait of George Washington [in Continental Army uniform] by John Trumbull (1780), oil on canvas.
To beautify his army, Washington wrote a recipe:
"Two pounds of flour and one-half pound of rendered tallow per hundred men may be drawn from the contractors for dressing the hair."
By flour, of course, Washington meant the light-colored, edible powder made by grinding a grain like wheat and then used for making dough or bread. Throughout the war, flour was an omnipresent necessity on the Continental Army’s ration lists. Along with flour, beef was also a ubiquitous ration item. Rendered tallow’s base ingredient was beef fat, or suet. Rendered tallow could be used for a variety of purposes, from frying food to making candles and soap.
Beautifying The Continental Army
In this case, the tallow would smooth back the soldiers’ hair, providing a sticky base to hold the flour that would then be shaken or puffed onto it.
Once stuck to the men’s hair, the flour’s dry powder would lighten it into a more uniform color while keeping it stiffly in place.
Washington’s recipe for beautifying the Continental Army, in other words, was pulverized grain and congealed animal fat.
In ordering supplies for the men to smooth and powder their hair, Washington was also dictating that they mimic his own grooming habits. Unlike some other officers in the British, French, and American armies, Washington did not wear a wig. Instead, as his portraits record, his habit was to wear his own hair tied back and powdered.
Washington, however, did not do his own hair.
His enslaved valet William “Billy” Lee (also pictured in the Trumbull portrait), or the servant of one of Washington’s aide-de-camp’s dressed it for him. After brushing it, applying a pomade, and tying it back, Washington’s hair was powdered, using a tool like thispuff.
High quality pomades like that used by Washington were made of rendered tallow and—to counteract smells as it went rancid over time—perfumed with fragrances like bergamot, bay leaf, rosewood, or rosewater. Powder, too, although made of ingredients like flour and dried white clay that were less likely to spoil, was also commonly perfumed, with scents like nutmeg, ambergris, rose, or lavender.
Fruit and Vegetable Motif
“Fantastic Hairdress with Fruit and Vegetable Motif,“ Anonymous, French, 18th century, Watercolor on canvas laid down on board. Bequest of Rosina H. Hoppin, 1965.
Enthusiasm For Powdered Hair
Perfume and quality aside, the recipe Washington ordered for dressing his army’s hair was not that different from what he used himself.
Still, there is evidence that not all the troops shared their commander’s enthusiasm for powdered hair. Earlier in the war, Continental Army officer Anthony Wayne:
observ’d with a good deal of Pain that some of the Regiments have sent their men to the Parade with unpowder’d Hair, long Beards, dirty shirts, and rusty Arms.
Wayne issued soap and even excused troops from duty so they could appear “fresh shav’d, clean, and well powder’d at troop beating.”
For his concern over the troops’ grooming, and his fastidiousness about his own hygiene and hair, Wayne earned the disparaging nickname of “Dandy Wayne.” Painstakingly groomed hair for both men and women was an easy satirical target in the late eighteenth century. Military men like Wayne were not exempt from such attacks.
Satirical humor aside, the variety of pragmatic possibilities flour and tallow held beyond hairdressing may explain why some troops might have been inclined to use these rations for things other than their coiffures.
Reviewing the Troops
“Count de Rochambeau, French General of the Land Forces in America Reviewing the French Troops,” Anonymous, British, 18th century, published by E. Hedges (London, 1781), Engraving.
Keeping Up Appearances
A few months after his general orders for powdering the troops’ hair, Washington wrote of his officers’ “Mortification” at not being able to “invite a French Officer” to “a better Repast than stinkg Whiskey (& not always that) & a bit of Beef without Vegitable.”
These visiting French officers likely would have worn wigs or powdered their hair to attend such meals, no matter how poor the fare. American officers like Washington wished to keep up appearances of all sorts when they entertained the French.
Maintaining A Certificate Of Use
At the same time, American enlisted men might well have preferred putting edible hairdressing ingredients in their bellies rather than on their heads.
Washington was wise to this potential; officers were required to keep a tally of who used these rations, and to vouch on a “certificate of use” that they were, in fact, used to groom hair.