When Americans thought hair was a window to the soul

In 2004, the North Korean government launched considered one of the strangest attacks TV campaigns in recent history: “Let us cut our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.”

Accompanied by radio and print advertisements, the five-part television series urged North Korean men to wear short hair. State-approved haircuts, the campaign said, range in length from one to 5 centimeters, with seven centimeters allowed for men over 50 who wish to hide a bald scalp.

Why exactly did the federal government care a lot about how North Korean men wore their hair? Long hair, the campaign argued“consumes a lot of food” and thus endangers the “development of human intelligence” by depriving the brain of the crucial energy.

Aside from pseudoscientific notions, state media also suggested that hair represented something deeper. The Minju Choson newspaper claims that hair is a “very important issue that shows the cultural standards and mental and moral state of people.”

This bizarre campaign might sound to a Western reader like one other idiosyncratic North Korean story. But the concept hair can reflect an individual's character didn’t come from Kim Jong-il.

Until the early Twentieth century, people within the United States believed that hair could reveal the reality in regards to the person from whose head it sprouted. Hair wasn't just a method of creative self-expression or political affiliation, because it was within the mid-Twentieth century—when it could signal to others that you just were a hippie, an entrepreneur, or a black nationalist. Nor was it simply an object of ridicule, like Donald Trump's hair – a source of the infinite speculation And mockery.

Rather, hair was considered a reliable – even scientific – solution to quickly classify a stranger. Many Nineteenth century Americans believed that hair had properties resembling: courage, ambition or criminal tendencies.

It also had extraordinary significance in conversations about race.

“Passions and inclinations prevailing” within the hair

Americans once believed with surprising certainty that hairstyle, color, or texture could reveal a variety of private characteristics.

In 1863, for instance, the literary magazine “The Knickerbocker” devoted 13 pages defending men who parted their hair down the center – a mode that was considered an indication of weakness.

Now a medical journal from Kansas City argued1899: “Criminals usually have thin beards.”

In the 1870s, several newspapers printed an in depth taxonomy of the various temperaments that hair could communicate.

“Hard, straight hair” For exampleHe signaled “a stubborn and tough character.” Straight hair indicated “a melancholy but extremely constant character,” while individuals with auburn hair had “the highest capacity for enjoyment or suffering.” Anyone who had coarse black hair had a “tendency toward sensuality.”

This taxonomy ended with a provocative suggestion that highlighted people's reverence for hair:

“The very manner in which the hair flows is a strong indication of the prevailing passions and inclinations, and perhaps a wise person could make an astute estimate of the disposition of a man or woman by looking only at the back of their head.”

But greater than 100 years before reports linking hair to personality traits became common knowledge, white Americans were already using hair as a shorthand for classifying and interpreting race.

What a shame for a person with long hair!

Associations between race and hairstyle are somewhat familiar to us today. For example within the US military revised its standards of care in 2014 Many observers say women ought to be banned from wearing dreadlocks, twists and plenty of kinds of braids have seen these changes as being targeted at black soldiers, despite the rules' race-neutral language. (Later that yr the military has modified these guidelines in response to such criticism.)

However, before the Twentieth century, hair was not only related to one particular racial group; This meant clear, biological evidence of an individual's race.

Heavy Shield photographer Edward Curtis's portrait.
McMahan photo

English colonists in North America associated hair color and racial identity from the start of colonization. In political proclamations and non secular tracts, colonial leaders denounced the long hair of Native Americans as evidence of their inherent barbarism.

Seventeenth-century ideas about difference—what we would today call racial difference—trusted way more Christian beliefs than on physical characteristics, with colonial criticism of Native American hair practices relying heavily on biblical guidelines. References to 1 Corinthians 11, what asked“Doesn’t nature itself teach you that it is a shame for a man to have long hair?”

In 1649, Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Endecott joined a gaggle of colonial judges to sentence Colonists grew their hair and declared that doing so was “contrary to the rule of the Word of God,” an allusion to 1 Corinthians 11.

Additionally, their proclamation argued that selecting such a cut was “rude and unmanly” and that male colonists who wore their hair long were in actual fact “deformed.”[d] What mattered was that Endecott and the judges categorically described “wearing long hair” as “in the manner of ruffians and barbarous Indians.”

To the colonizers, long hair wasn't only a random style adopted by some male colonists within the New World; it was evidence of their unchristian moral corruption. In critiques resembling Endecott's Proclamation, white colonists organized their world in accordance with a series of binaries that associated whiteness, Christianity, civilization, and masculinity with short hair; and non-whiteness, paganism, barbarism and femininity with long hair.

Take an example from the queue

Two centuries later, similar associations between barbarism and men's hair length still existed, shaping the best way white Americans responded to the Chinese immigrants who got here to California after the invention of gold in 1848.

An elderly man with a snake in San Francisco.
California Historical Society

Almost uniformly, Chinese immigrants of Han descent wore long braided ponytails called cues, which they wore through the Qing Dynasty as a logo of their loyalty to the emperor. (Because most Chinese immigrants in California during this time intended to eventually return to China, they didn’t cut their queues.) Because queues were very different from the short hairstyles that American men commonly wore, they fascinated white Americans, who consistently wore them mentioned images and print.

In the eyes of whites, nonetheless, the queue was not simply a novel hairstyle or a logo of political loyalty. Instead, it quickly became clear that Chinese men weren’t only racially alien, but additionally barbaric, old-fashioned and backwards.

The importance of the queue became particularly clear when American newspapers discussed the top of the Qing Dynasty, when Chinese men in China and the United States broke their queues.

On June 18, 1911, the San Francisco Call described how lines were being “cut off by the thousands.” That “the majority of Chinese men will wear their hair like the men of Europe and America do” was evidence that China was “finally…awakening from its centuries-old slumber.”

A racist cartoon from 1874 shows a Chinese immigrant evolving from a monkey – and standing in line.
The Wong Ching Foo Collection

If “castles” could enslave

But the challenges of attaching racial intending to hair have never been greater than when hair entered the courtroom.

In the a long time before the Civil War, mixed-race slaves sometimes sued for his or her freedom, claiming that they weren’t actually black and subsequently couldn’t be enslaved. In court, judges and lawyers often used hair as reliable biological evidence of racial identity.

In Hudgins vs. Wrights, which reached the Virginia Supreme Court in 1806, the enslaved Wright family argued that they were descended from Native Americans on their mother's side, not Africans. (Virginia had banned the enslavement of Native Americans in 1777.)

The judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Wrights and his decision illustrates the authority that Hair possessed:

“Nature has endowed the African and his descendants with two distinctive characteristics […] which often remain visible long after the characteristic color difference has either disappeared or become doubtful; a flat nose and woolly hair. The latter of these features is the last to disappear…”

In other words, in a Nineteenth-century courtroom, hair revealed black identity much more reliably than skin color.

Racial judgments have been rooted in haircuts, hair textures, and hair strands for hundreds of years. And while it might probably be tempting to conclude that hair has at all times reflected the identity of its wearer, the haircut – like all elements of the past – has meant various things to people in several times and places. Hair is each historically and culturally specific.

And before the Twentieth century, hair spoke louder than we could have ever imagined.

image credit : theconversation.com