What did you do if you’re a young (ish) woman in the French region of Brittany in the 1860s and you needed a new dress or a pair of shoes? Why, you had a haircut, that’s what you did.
Here’s Bentley’s Miscellany on the subject in 1863:-
From 15 to 40 years of age the hair is saleable about seven times, but the price diminishes on each occasion, because of the greater coarseness of the product. Now, as the total female population of the three hair-growing departments stands at 893,000, of whom at least one-half are above 15, follows that, if three-quarters of them pursue the trade, some 260,000 heads contribute, in that district alone, the supply of wigs and fausses queues to the richer classes. The thing is such a habit in Brittany, and is regarded as so natural (though there are symptoms that it is diminishing) that if a young girl wants pair of sabots her mother will simply send her to market to exchange her hair against them. The women who have contracted the habit of dealing regularly, as long as they can get crop, cannot bear to have their hair long afterwards, so when it turns grey, and is no longer sale: able, they hack it down themselves, and keep in such a bristly state that when they take off their coiffes jumps up into a thorny aureole, like a firework in explosion. There is a grizzly old peasant woman near St. Brieuc who has smouldered into rheumatisms and neuralgia, and who always swears indignantly at her hair as the cause of them; when a twinge comes on she tells her grandchildren ” to cut off a little square there, just there, that is where the pain is, it will go away with the confounded hair.”
All this hair was ending up in the UK and America where wigs and hair extensions had become resurgent in women’s fashion. This followed a lull earlier in the century when the trendsetters tried desperately to avoid the overblown hair fashions of Georgian and Regency England.
Where there is money changing hands there is always the option for dishonesty. In New York professional teams would circulate crowded places visited by those rich enough to have already made purchases of hair and they would be deprived of their own hair or even the very expensive imported extensions they wore.
Nowhere was sacred from ‘hair depredation’ as it was known. Though the story may be apocryphal, the New York Sun in 1869 told of a rich young teenage girl with magnificent hair ‘of the richest chestnut color and flowed in shining ripples even beyond her waist’. When she suddenly died, she was laid out in a bedroom and the room cleared. While the parents grieved in another part of the mansion, yes, you’ve guessed, someone came in and “robbed the fair corpse of all her tresses”. The report claims this was not an isolated incident either, and so one hopes New York’s finest closely questioned workers in funeral homes nearby.
But there was an even darker side when, let’s be honest, fetishists, took to wandering the streets with scissor or razor in hand ready to clandestinely deprive girls and women of their own curl or plait.
In 1912, Paris police were hunting an upper crust Englishman who was hanging around the “night establishments of Montmartre”. His pitch was first to ask, saying (as if this wasn’t weird enough) that he was collecting hair to make a mattress. When, unsurprisingly, he was turned down, he resorted to inviting the woman whose hair he fancied to dine, then drugging her and snipping what he desired. If only he’d known about Brittany (and we don’t mean Britney — she had hair issues of her own a while back, but that’s another yarn).
The practice is probably going on even today, to satisfy the kinky, though hopefully relatively harmless, deviants out there.
In 1926 Maurice Knight, a 29 year old commercial traveller from the poor Eastern side of London was arrested after loitering suspiciously in the ritzy district of Maida Vale for some hours. When searched, he had on him two locks of hair. The Sherlock Holmes on the case, one police sergeant Pike, told the court “It is quite possible the hair found on his person has been cut from women.”
You don’t say…