Rats and Bad Hair Days

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Oh, the Gibson Girl hair! Don’t you just love it? All those twists and curls and rolls . . . the romantic poufs . . . the wispy tendrils.

I can get lost in the fantasy of living at the turn-of-the-20th century with hair that would look like that every day—until I see pictures of my great-grandmother.

Her hair, more often than not, looked like this.

Which, as you can well see, is a far cry from this.

I know what you’re thinking. The Gibson Girl was a pen-and-ink drawing, by a man, no less, and therefore no more representative of the average woman of the day than the photoshopped images we see in our present-day magazines. Still, there were real live women of that time period who could pull off the look—celebrities like the duchess, the President’s daughter and the infamous model/actress. And I’m sure more than a few ordinary women conquered the look as well. Why, I know any number of women of my acquaintance today who have the type of hair needed for all that poufiness.

But I don’t.

And (apparently) neither did my great-grandmother.

Which led me to ask—what did the hair-deprived woman of the early 1900’s do? I know well the frustrations of owning baby-fine hair in a big-hair decade. I lived in Texas . . . in the 80’s. The humid part of Texas . . . in the 80’s. I know the tools I used then—the perms, the volumizers, the hairspray—but what about the poor wimpy-haired women of the Gibson Girl era who lived before those methods existed? What did they do?

One answer I found was rats. Not the four-legged kind with the skinny tails. No, these rats (or ratts) were wads of discarded hair that were sewn into sheer hair nets to be used as padding for the pompadours and rolls of the popular hairstyles. These rats could be made of false hair or even horse hair, but most women used their own.

On many a Victorian vanity you could find an item that looked like this. These were called hair receivers. After her daily brushing of the requisite 100 (or so) strokes, the Victorian lady would clean her brush or comb and deposit the strands of hair into the hole at the top of the receiver. When she gathered enough hair, she could use it for any number of things—to make rats, to stuff pillows or to braid into intricate designs for jewelry or works of art (though the latter were probably made more often from cut hair than the tangled discards.)

Of course, if the rats didn’t work and you were faced with the turn-of-the-last century equivalent of a bad hair day, you could always resort to the remedy used by women throughout the ages–stick a hat on it and call it good. Luckily for my great-grandmother, hats were also a fashion staple of the early 1900s.