Event: Bancroft Roundtable: “Whiskerology: The Meaning of Hair in Nineteenth-Century America.”

The first Bancroft Library Roundtable of the 2015-2016 academic year will take place in the Lewis-Latimer Room of The Faculty Club at noon on Thursday, September 17. Sarah Gold McBride, doctoral candidate in history at UC Berkeley, will present “Whiskerology: The Meaning of Hair in Nineteenth-Century America.”

In 1846, a New Orleans Picayune reporter proposed a new branch of natural science that, he argued, could provide scientists with reliable evidence of a person’s genuine identity. He called this new field “whiskerology,” the scientific study of facial hair. Though this idea may never have moved beyond the level of suggestion, the Picayune reporter represented a common belief among nineteenth-century Americans: that hair could expose the truth about the person from whose body it grew. Using evidence drawn from across American life—including scientific findings, legal practice, slavery, popular art, immigration debates, and agitation for women’s rights—this talk will explore how nineteenth-century Americans understood the meaning of hair. It was not just a means of creative self-expression, as it would come to function in the twentieth century. Instead, it was understood to be a trustworthy method to quickly classify a stranger—to know if someone was trustworthy, or courageous, or criminally inclined. Studying hair in historical context allows us to better understand how nineteenth-century Americans made sense of the increasingly modern society in which they lived.

Crystal Miles and Kathi Neal
Bancroft Library Staff