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Sully Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Sully Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

The account books of a Williamsburg wig [1] maker supply evidence that Thomas Jefferson did purchase wigs and hair pieces early in his professional career. The records of Edward Carlton, now in the Colonial Williamsburg Archives, show that between April 15, 1769 and April 25, 1773, Thomas Jefferson purchased a brown "Dress Queue", a brown "Tye Wig," two brown "Dress Bob-wigs," two "pairs of curls" and three pounds of hair powder.[2]

It is not certain whether Jefferson continued to wear wigs following this date. His Memorandum Books do indicate that he continued to purchase hair powder and pomade, a fragrant hair dressing, and in 1775 while traveling from Williamsburg to Philadelphia, he purchased a "hair-bag" in Fredericksburg: June 13, "Pd. in Fredsburgh. For a hair-bag 4/."[3] As early as the 1720s, a popular variation of the full-bottomed wig, or "periwig," was to tie the wig hair back and secure it into a small, black, draw-string bag which rested at the nape of the neck and was thus called a "bag-wig." Later in the century as men began to rely more on their natural hair, the bag was often retained to secure the ends of the hair and continued to be fashionably worn in the 1780s.[4] It is possible this was the purpose of the "hair bag" purchased by Jefferson in 1775.

While Jefferson was serving in Paris from 1784-1789 as the United States envoy, an observation by Abigail Adams indicated that he may have preferred to have his own hair dressed into the fashion required at the French Court rather than wear a wig: "His hair too is an other affliction which he is tempted to cut off. He expects not to live above a Dozen years & he shall lose one of those in hair dressing. Their is not a porter nor a washer woman but what has their hair powderd and drest every day."[5]

Apparently by 1804, he had followed the temptation to cut off his hair; as Senator William Plumer noted in calling upon President Jefferson, "I found the President dressed better than I ever saw him when I called on a morning visit. . . . his hair was cropt & powdered."[6] Gilbert Stuart's "medallion profile" of Jefferson painted in June of 1805 shows the hair cut rather short and loosely curled at the hairline and over the forehead. This was not out of keeping with the current trend, as by the last decade of the eighteenth century more and more fashionable men were wearing their hair short.[7]

Even though Jefferson had fashionably shorter hair, he continued still to use hair powder. After retirement to Monticello, he wrote to his grandson Jefferson Randolph in Philadelphia, "I must pray you to put half a dozen pounds of scented hair powder into the same box. None is to be had here, and it is almost a necessary life with me."[8] It is difficult to determine how long Jefferson continued to powder his hair. There are no specific references to hair powder in his Memorandum Books after January 1799; however, hair powder could easily have been included in other purchases just as his 1809 request of his grandson was included in a long shopping list. An examination of the 1821 Thomas Sully portrait of Jefferson may indicate that he had given up the habit of hair powder in his advanced years, as Sully captures streaks of his natural red hair mixed with gray.


  1. This article is based on Gaye Wilson, Monticello Research Report, July 1999.
  2. Copy of Charlton's ledger sheet from the Colonial Williamsburg Archives. Noted in MB, 1:75, footnote 96.
  3. Ibid, 1:397.
  4. A good discussion of the development of the bag-wig can be found in Diana de Marly, Fashion for Men: An Illustrated History (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), 63. Also, Elisabeth McClellan, Historic Dress in America (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs, 1904), 1:316.
  5. Abigail Adams, September 8, 1784. Massachusetts Historical Society.
  6. Everett Somerville Brown, ed. William Plumer's Memorandum of Proceedings in the United States Senate, 1803-1807 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1923).
  7. de Marly, 1:75-79.
  8. Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, May 6, 1809. Family Letters, 392.