Giving a lecture on my research at
The Exploratorium museum in San Francisco.
My current book project is tentatively titled Whiskerology: Hair and the Legible Body in Nineteenth-Century America.
Whiskerology argues that in the United States during the nineteenth century, men and women from different regions, class backgrounds, racial groups, and religious traditions shared an extraordinary faith in the diagnostic and classificatory power of hair.
Hair was popularly understood to be capable of quickly and reliably conveying important information about a stranger’s identity or character; it could indicate whether that person was male or female, Christian or heathen, powerful or subordinate, healthy or diseased, black or white, or even courageous, ambitious, or criminally inclined. Hair was also a synecdoche for its owner. It encapsulated an individual when it was growing on the head or on the face, and continued to do so after it was shorn from the body and stored in a book, exchanged between friends, or examined under a microscope. In some cases, hair was considered more reliable than other indices that have traditionally dominated the study of group and individual identity in modern American history, such as skin color.
Nineteenth-century Americans understood their hair to be a part of their bodies. Its unusual properties relative to the rest of the body—such as its ability to resist decay after separation—made hair
particularly significant to nineteenth-century Americans anxious to specify and identify meaning in the physical body. This dissertation proposes that an understanding of hair, and the meanings it conveyed, allowed Americans to feel more confident as they traversed streets, rode trains, and negotiated markets—confident that the hair they saw on strangers’ heads had the power to reliably tell them who was who, and who could be trusted.
Whiskerology comprises five thematic chapters: the debate in colonial New England over whether it was acceptable for men to wear long hair, facial hair and the cultural salience of the Bearded Lady, the collection and exchange of objects made from hair, the science of hair and its consequences for contemporary understandings of race, and the ways in which nineteenth-century Americans tested the limits of hair’s legibility and reconciled the unease surrounding its malleability.
Hair is nearly ubiquitous in the human world, and it has been meaningful in different ways to varied cultures and communities. Ultimately, however, what was distinct about hair in nineteenth-century America was that the messages hair conveyed were seemingly written by the body itself: they were external communications between the public and the bearer—not the internal articulation of the identity the bearer wanted to project, as hair would come to function in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
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