A History of Hair: Using Hairstyles to Understand Our Ancestors

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Every fashion era evokes a hairstyle, from the functional to the fanciful. In our lifetimes, Farrah Fawcett’s blowout, the Beatles’ bowl cuts and Dorothy Hamill’s sculpted wedge were coiffures that launched a thousand cuts. For our 19th-century ancestors, Queen Victoria and Gen. Ambrose Burnside were the hairstyle trendsetters. Just like today’s fashionistas, our ancestors wanted to emulate celebrities’ styles.


Looking at your family’s pictures with knowledge of the history of hairdos will help you determine dates for the photos—and give you more insight into why your ancestors fixed themselves up a certain way. An older woman or man with a youthful hairstyle might’ve been trying to keep up with fashion, while one who clung to the style of his or her earlier years was likely more conservative. A young woman with a mature style may have sought to look older. In the early 20th century, bobbed hair was often considered a badge of rebellion. Hair was also thought to affect a person’s health, so if you see a child or woman with shorn hair, it might be because she was ill. Cutting the hair was thought to help a person get well.

Details such as these can help you create better pictures of your ancestors—and figure out whether everybody wore those crazy mustaches or just Great-grandpa Harold. Compare the tresses and trims in your family portraits to the pictures in this guide to date your ancestors’ hairstyles, and maybe reveal something about their personalities.

1840–early 1850s

Women parted their hair in the center—a trend that would continue for most of the century—and had locks of hair in front with ringlets that looped over the ears. By the end of the 1840s, all the fullness was at the sides, and hair always covered the ears. Ladies wore wide bonnets that hugged the back of the head and framed the face, with the ringlets visible. Large combs decorated their hairstyles, while in the evenings, women donned feathers, flowers and wreaths as hair accessories.

Men may have admired Charles Dickens’ mustache, but few actually grew them. Facial hair was considered a French import, and British and Americans didn’t favor them at the time because of political conflicts. Men’s hair was ear-length and parted on one side. If a man had facial hair at all, it was probably a fringe beard under the chin.


The 1850s were a tumultuous time for men’s hair. Disagreements over the appropriateness of beards continued, and the Bank of England prohibited mustaches during work hours, leaving one to wonder how a man could manage having facial hair only on his own time. The answer was simple: false beards and mustaches. In 1850, The Knickerbocker magazine ran three months of articles against beards, and in 1853, author and hair product manufacturer Alexander Rowland published a book, The Human Hair, in support of them. By the end of the 1850s, beards had gained public favor, and side whiskers were increasing in size and popularity. On their heads, men wore their hair long on top, often with a side part, combed into a wave at the center of the forehead. Macassar oil, lard or bear grease was used to keep hair smooth (see box, page 58).


For women, the full hair of the 1840s became exaggerated. Costume historian Joan Severa describes one such style in her book My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America (Kent State University Press, $65): “Bandeaux of hair were drawn down over the ears and pinned at the nape of the neck; the back hair was then formed in large rolls to extend on either side of the head.” The style was likely padded with false hair and combs. Delicate ornaments sat on the back or the sides of the head. Later in the decade, Queen Victoria set the standard with tidy hair pulled back or wrapped in a braid around the head.


By 1864, Empress Eugenie of France was the style icon, inspiring women to pile their hair into rolls. The center part for women remained dominant, with hair covering most of the ear. The idea was to frame the face using rolls (enhanced by cushions) or braids that met at the back of the head. In the late 1860s, a French style known as the Parisian chignon became popular. Ringlets, decorative hairnets and braids that encircled the head were all in fashion. In order to duplicate these styles, women needed more hair. In 1860, the United States imported 200,000 pounds of hair, harvested primarily from French and German peasant girls. American women who couldn’t afford real hair used flax, wool or horsehair instead.

Beards became popular in the West before the East Coast caught on, because they were practical for the frontier. (Buffalo Bill Cody reportedly said shaving wasn’t convenient to the frontier lifestyle.) Around the time of the Civil War, men started growing all types of beards and kept them for a generation. Gen. Ambrose Burnside lent his name to a style of whiskers; Burnsides were later reversed to become sideburns. Uncle Sam began to appear with a beard just before the Civil War, and the facial hair has remained to this day. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to wear a beard; Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield followed his lead.


Long, free-flowing hair enhanced by hairpieces and large combs was all the rage for women at the beginning of the 1870s. This youthful waterfall style replaced the long sausage curls of the late 1860s. If you weren’t born with a naturally wavy head of hair, you could use the recently invented curling iron. During the mid-1870s, women wore large buns or braids on top of their heads, with jewels, beads, ribbons and flowers as decoration. Bangs briefly took precedence over the center part—they were frizzed or made of tightly wound corkscrews of fake hair. After the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, women began to wear Spanish mantillas—lace or silk scarves draped over the head and shoulders. On the cusp of the 1880s, frizzed bangs remained in vogue, with buns worn low on the back of the head or hair in a single braided loop. Women’s magazines such as Peterson’s published step-by-step illustrations of fashionable hairdressing.

Men continued to wear a wide array of beards—Imperials, box beards, spade beards, forked and twisted beards and small goatees. According to The History of Hair by Ann Charles and Roger DeAnfrasio (Bonanza, out of print), few members of the Harvard graduating classes of the 1870s were cleanshaven. Innovative companies took advantage of this trend with products such as cups with lip guards for mustachioed men and clips to keep drooping facial hair out of the way during dinner.


Women’s hair was tame compared to the previous decade’s trends. While there was some frizzing of bangs, flat bangs were common by mid-decade. Ladies pulled their hair back in a severe fashion, and wire foundations assisted in creating French twists. Actress Lillie Langtry’s pompadour hairstyle was popular.

In prior generations, men wore short hair parted on the side, but center parts began to catch on in the 1880s. Older men trimmed their facial hair; young men went cleanshaven or wore amazing mustaches. (See the Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century blog for more visuals <>.) Mothers, inspired by the Little Lord Fauntleroy stories by Frances Hodgson Burnett, gave their sons long curls, known as love-locks. It can be difficult to separate the girls from the boys in this era, but there’s one easy trick to tell them apart: girls’ hair was usually parted in the middle, and boys’ on the side. 1890-1900s

The look for men in the ’90s was neat—short hair with a cleanshaven face. With a shave costing just 10 cents on average, men visited their barbers often—even daily—to maintain a tidy appearance and to network. (See the sidebar on page 57 for more on hair salon history.) If a man sported a mustache, it was a handlebar, kept shapely by using special combs, brushes and wax.

Young women idolized actress Sarah Bernhardt’s soft curls and sought to duplicate the style with hair pulled back to the nape of the neck. They wore side or center parts with full hair on the crown of the head accented with tall combs, or went after a Grecian look of topknots accented with hair jewelry. In this period, women’s heads tended to look small in comparison with their puffy sleeves. 1900-1910s

Men forsaking facial hair inspired salesman King Camp Gillette to create a disposable razor in 1895. Sales were initially slow, but by giving away safety razors and selling the replacement blades, Gillette sold 90,000 razors and more than 12 million blades. The majority of men wore short hair; long locks were associated with artists and musicians.

The Gibson Girl, drawn by Charles Dana Gibson for Life, was the feminine beauty ideal. Women wore their hair full and coiled in the back, which helped support the large hats of the period. These masses of hair—rolled up over horsehair forms—contrasted with women’s small, corseted waists. But a radical change was about to happen to women’s hair: Karl Nessler invented the first permanent wave machine. The process used noxious chemicals and lasted six hours, so it’s no surprise that it took awhile to catch on. But after World War I, permed hair—at salons and with home kits—became commonplace.


By early in the 20th century, men were tired of women’s hair contrivances and advocated for a more natural look. French hairdresser Marcel Grateau had invented the curling iron in the 1870s, and the “Marcel wave” was popular in the United States by the advent of World War I. Long hair was dangerous to women working in factories during the war, so they copied dancer Irene Castle’s bobbed hair. The style ushered in 50 years of short hair. The trend was slow to catch on, but by 1918, many young women decided it was time to shear short. It was a revolution.

As women flocked to barber shops for haircuts, many men hated the trend. Husbands divorced short-locked wives, and businesses fired them. To the conservative segment of the population, women with short hair were radicals, but that didn’t deter them. According to Bill Severn in The Long and Short of It (David McKay Co., out of print), some barbers in New York City reported 2,000 female customers a day. Short cuts came in many different styles: the boyish bob, French bob, straight bob, Shingle, Castle bob and Valentine bob. By the late ’20s, even older women opted for short hair.

The majority of men in the 1920s and ’30s went cleanshaven, though a few copied Charlie Chaplin’s small mustache. Their super-short haircuts ranged from the European-style pompadour to the slicked-back look actor Rudolph Valentino popularized.

The next time you look at an ancestor’s photo, think about the hair choices they made. Remember—every lock tells a story, so why not give your descendants something to talk about?

Other Facts to Note

Before you jump to the conclusion that your ancestress had a tremendous amount of hair, think about this: According to Marian I. Doyle’s An Illustrated History of Hairstyles 1830-1930 (Schiffer), “nearly every woman of the Victorian era owned at least one false hairpiece, whether an elaborately pre-styled chignon or a fringe of curls on a comb.” Hairpieces, wigs and other accoutrements were available via mail order. Watch for mismatched hair color and texture as well as excessive amounts of hair to determine if your ancestor enhanced her hairdo. Women also used devices such as forms, lace and gauze to achieve some of their extreme hairstyles.

Modern hair care products have their roots in the powders and ointments applied to 19th-century heads. Women used scented orris powder, and both men and women used products to control unruly locks. Macassar oil, which reputedly came from nuts gathered in the Celebes Islands, was a concoction of fragrant spices such as cloves, mace (nutmeg) and cinnamon. When you look at photographs of Victorian interiors, watch for doilies placed on the backs of chairs—they were there to protect furniture from oily locks. Frugal individuals used lard or bear grease to slick back their hair. Tonics supposedly cured dandruff. Doyle’s book mentions a home recipe that included beef marrow and rose oil.

Dyes were available to banish gray strands, and advertisements for all types of compounds to restore or enhance hair appeared in magazines. Given the variety of additives and the popularity of these products, you can only imagine the prevalence of lice and the scents that emanated from a crowd. After all, your female forebears also forewent the regular shampooing you’re accustomed to; most only washed their hair monthly but brushed their tresses 100 times daily. Daily hair washing is a late 20th-century concept.

Finding Ancestors Who Worked in the Hair Industry

Do you have an ancestor with a connection to the hair industry? Both men and women relied on their hairdressers to produce the elaborate styles in these photos. The first professional barber college in the United States didn’t open until 1893, but barbering was a trade often learned on the job. You can determine if any of your ancestors cut hair for a living by checking city directories—the business listings will include barbershops and schools in the community. If the barber or hairdresser school is still in business, it may have an archive with information on past students. If not, check with local or state historical societies, which are also excellent resources for pictures of these establishments. If your ancestor received training in the last century, he or she likely attended school for hairdressing or barbering and had to obtain a license to practice. These licenses may have been issued by cities or states; look for them at state archives and local historical societies.

Historic Hairstyle Resources


19th Century Hairstyles

The Hair Archives

Hairstyle History

Mustaches of the Nineteenth Century


The History of Hair by Ann Charles and Roger DeAnfrasio (Bonanza, out of print)

An Illustrated History of Hairstyles 1830-1930 by Marian I. Doyle (Schiffer)

My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America by Joan Severa (Kent State University Press)

The Long and Short of It by Bill Severn (David McKay Co., out of print) is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program. It provides a means for this site to earn advertising fees, by advertising and linking to Amazon and affiliated websites.

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