Bancroft Rountable Discussion: Whiskerology

Photo Source: Martin Peterdamm Photography via CC,

Sarah Gold McBride, doctoral candidate in history, will lead a roundtable discussion titled, Whiskerology: The Meaning of Hair in Nineteenth-Century America on Thursday, September 17th at Noon in the O’Neill Room of The Faculty Club.

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.

When: September 17, 2015, Noon – 1:00 pm

Where: O’Neill Room, The Faculty Club

Free and open to the public.

Post contributed by

Kathryn M. Neal

Associate University Archivist

University Archives

The Bancroft Library