Powdered Wigs

Ever wonder why people wore those crazy-looking powdered wigs back in the day? It’s a really interesting story (most of this comes from this Mentalfloss article).

To over-simplify things, you probably know that Columbus and other Europeans (and their African slaves) came to America and exposed the Native Americans to diseases such as smallpox, the flu, and plagues — and it just about wiped out the Natives. Well, in return, the Americans gave the Europeans the STD syphilis. It’s part of what is known as the Colombian Exchange. Watch this…

One of the symptoms of syphilis is hair loss. In Europe at the time, baldness was quite embarrassing so wigs were created for the people. The powder was to help cover up their rank orders. The wigs were kind of like a scarlet letter in that pretty much the only reason you wore one was because you had syphilis.

…until King Louis XIV of France and King Charles II of England began wearing the wigs in the 1650’s. The wigs were expensive so only the elite could afford them. This is where we get the term ‘bigwig’ meaning an elite, bossy kind of person. Soon wig-making became more popular and an industry was born. As supply went up they became more affordable and it wasn’t just for the elite syphilis-ridden folks anymore!

The wigs went out of style by the late 1700’s. Not sure what they did about syphilis in the 1800’s since penicillin wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s.

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