What’s with the Powdered Wigs?

The content below is from Season 2 Episode 29 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast.


  • Sorry blog readers, but I really like letting Shannon do the recommendation segment. As long as she also enjoys it, I think I will continue this trend of having her record the audio-only recommendation segment. Check it out on the podcast if you’d like. 🙂


  • Well Who’d a Thunkers, just as a disclaimer, this episode will be about a Sexually Transmitted Disease, among other things. Which STD you ask?
  • Syphilis. It is a sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema Pallidum, a bacterium.
    • Let me start out by explaining how serious syphilis can be.
    • From the CDC: Syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary), with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage.
    • A person with primary syphilis generally has a sore or sores at the original site of infection. These sores usually occur on or around the genitals, around the anus or in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. These sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless.
    • Symptoms of secondary syphilis include skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis can be mild, and they might not be noticed.
    • During the latent stage, there are no signs or symptoms. 
    • Tertiary syphilis is associated with severe medical problems.  A doctor can usually diagnose tertiary syphilis with the help of multiple tests. It can affect the heart, brain, and other organs of the body.
    • Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can have very serious complications when left untreated, but it is simple to cure with the right treatment.
    • During the tertiary stage, syphilis may cause serious blood vessel and heart problems, mental disorders, blindness, nerve system problems, and even death.
      • That’s blindness, mental disorders, and death….
    • Today the preferred treatment at all stages is penicillin, an antibiotic medication that can kill the organism that causes syphilis. But guess what… Penicillin hasn’t been around that long.
      • Although believed to have been used as far back as the ancient Egyptians by the practice of applying a poultice of moldy bread to infected wounds, Penicillin was not discovered by modern medicine until 1928. It was the first true antibiotic and was discovered by Alexander Fleming, Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.
      • That means before antibiotics you just had to suffer through a disease that commonly caused blindness and death. But we’ll get into pre-penicillin treatments later. for now let’s talk about the history behind the bacteria.
Professor Alexander Fleming and his world altering discovery of penicillin.
  • Here’s a quote from the Journal of Medicine and Life’s “Brief History of Syphilis” Published in 2014:
    • “From the very beginning, syphilis has been a stigmatized, disgraceful disease; each country whose population was affected by the infection blamed the neighboring (and sometimes enemy) countries for the outbreak. So, the inhabitants of today’s Italy, Germany and United Kingdom named syphilis ‘the French disease’, the French named it ‘the Neapolitan disease’, the Russians assigned the name of ‘Polish disease’, the Polish called it ‘the German disease’, The Danish, the Portuguese and the inhabitants of Northern Africa named it ‘the Spanish/Castilian disease’ and the Turks coined the term ‘Christian disease’. Moreover, in Northern India, the Muslims blamed the Hindu for the outbreak of the affliction. However, the Hindu blamed the Muslims and in the end everyone blamed the Europeans.”
    • I love how humorous the end of that sounds “in the end everyone blamed the Europeans” LOL
  • But that journal went on to explain a few ideas as to where the disease came from: There is a hypothesis called the Pre-Columbian hypothesis. It says that the bacteria that causes syphilis in humans has been around since 15,000 BCE. But it didn’t mutate into the sexually transmitted version we’ve all come to know an love until about 3,000 BCE. It came from Endemic Syphilis (also known as Bejel).
    •  Bejel is characterized by lesions of the skin and bones that begin in the mouth and progress in gradual stages. The late stages are the most severe. Bejel is very common in dry, hot climates especially in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean region and in Saharan West Africa.
      • That seems to be a re-occurring pattern I noticed in my research. Syphilis break outs tend to occur in areas with a specific climate.
    • So the pre-Columbian hypothesis says modern STD syphilis came from Bejel in South-Western Asia because of climate change during the post-glacial era. It then spread to Europe and the rest of the world. At first syphilis wasn’t that big of a deal. It was a mild disease. But it too mutated and became much more harmful to humans. Towards the end of the 15th Century it underwent lots of mutations and became pretty nasty.
  • Then there is the Columbian Hypothesis that says syphilis only showed up in the “Old World” when Christopher Columbus brought it back from the “New World” (the Americas) in 1493. This hypothesis is still a popular hypothesis today.
    • There are Spanish documents that support the Columbian hypothesis. Lots of people at the time were quick to point the finger at the indigenes people of the Americas.
    • More recently Scientist have been trying to prove the existence of syphilis in the Old World before the Columbus discovery by examining skeletal remains with RadioCarbon dating. They look for evidence of lesions that would match syphilis symptoms. More careful examining of such remains proved that all skeletal parts with specific luetic lesions dated not before, but after 1492.
    • Then years later American scientist were able to find syphilis-like lesions on skeletal remains throughout the Americas and those bones dated back thousands of years. AKA before contact with Columbus in 1492.
    • So there is evidence to support the Columbian hypothesis (Syphilis came from the native American people). But in the end the scientific community isn’t entirely sure where syphilis came from.
  • One thing we do know for sure was that the 15th Century was a big year for syphilis.
    • Once the year 1580 rolled around syphilis was the biggest disease to hit Europe since the Black Death. Patients were clogging clinics all throughout London and there was no end in sight.
    • Without antibiotics, victims faced the full brunt of the disease: open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss.
      • In the early 16th century, the main treatments for syphilis were guaiacum, or holy wood.
        • I had to look up what Guaiacum was and what the treatment entailed I was not disappointed…
        • Guaiacum is an evergreen tree of the Caribbean and tropical America, formerly important for its hard, heavy, oily timber but now scarce.
        • Guaiacum treatment requirements were diarrhea induced by enemas and profuse sweating by resting for 40 days in a dark and hot room, following a strict fasting therapy. Guaiacum was administered externally in ointments and internally in potions.
      • So think of getting enema induced diarrhea followed by 40 days in a dark and hot room where you couldn’t eat anything just to have that treatment rarely cure your syphilis – NOW COMPARE THAT TO – just a nice simple shot of penicillin that virtually always cures your syphilis. Modern medicine is the bee knees.
      • Another pre-penicillin treatment for The Pox (popular street name for syphilis) was mercury skin inunctions or ointments,
        • Might I mention that mercury treatments also have horrible side effects:
        • Cloudy urine.
        • headache (continuing or severe)
        • irritation, soreness, or swelling of gums
        • skin rash or unusual redness of skin
    • Pre-penicillin Syphilis treatment was by and large the province of barber and wound surgeons.
      • Your Barber was the one who treated your STD and he frequently did it with mercury.
      • Pretty convenient. You may have syphilis, but at least you can get that treated as the same place that helps you tidy up your hair and powdered wig.
    • Sweat baths were also used as it was thought induced salivation and sweating eliminated the syphilitic poisons. But really it just dehydrated the patient.
      • But the symptom of syphilis that played the most interest effect on history was baldness.
  • Being bald at the time was social death basically. If you were bald it brought shame to your family members.
    • Which I find kind of odd. If I’m going bald why would that bring shame upon my sister? LOL She would probably just laugh about it.
      • This poor gentleman pictured below has severe head wounds supposedly caused by tertiary syphilis. It is quite gruesome to look at.
  • So indirectly syphilis was what made Wigs and Wig Making all the rage.
    • Everyone and their mother had syphilis. They didn’t have penicillin so syphilis cases frequently progressed to the later stages of not just baldness but big bloody/gruesome sores and lesions on the face and head. So the idea was to get large wigs made of horse, goat, and human hair to cover up all those lesions. These wigs were called Perukes.
      • They powdered the wigs to keep them cleaner and keep parasites out. And they added lavender and orange scents to hide the stench of their open head and face wounds.
King Louis the XIV looked like he belonged shredding a bass for Motley Crue during the 80’s hair metal days. This painting is by  Pierre Mignard.
  • At first, Wigs weren’t really stylish as they were a necessary cosmetic cover up of a hideous medical condition… until Louis the XIV (1638 to 1715) (King of France) started to lose his hair. He employed dozens of wig makers to make sure his necessary wig looked good. He was the King after all.
    • Then just 5 years after King Louis the XIV starts wearing his custom made wig, his cousin the King Charles of England started to do the same. He too had a wig fit for royalty. Historians believe both of the wig wearing Kings had syphilis and the wigs were there to cover it up.
    • But when the aristocrats and European snobs of the day noticed their supposed Devine power wielding monarch was sporting a wig, they copied the look. The wig look was even copied by upper middle class members of European society. That is how the powdered wig fad was born… via syphilis.
      • Wigs became more expensive since everyone who was worth mentioning started to buy them up. They became a status symbol. If you wore an old creepy curled powdery wig around town in Europe you were somebody.
      • Common wigs cost about a week’s pay (25 shillings) for a middle class citizen of London. But of course the peacocking didn’t stop there.
      • It same became the standard that the bigger the wig, the more status you acquired. The word “bigwig” was coined to describe snobs who could afford big, poufy perukes.
        • The wig peacocking is just “different era, same concept” at play. We still wear jewelry, drive big fancy cars, and do all sorts of things to display our status in society. Thank goodness we don’t do it with wigs anymore though… These things look terribly uncomfortable to me.
Dutch artist Constantijn Netscher painted this poufy haired jagoff in 1702.
  • Like any fad, it took on a life of its own. King Louis and Charles died but the ridiculous wig style they created lived on for quite some time.
    • One of the main reasons for it living on was for practical reasons. Because Europeans weren’t really known for their hygiene, lice ran rampant through the continent at the time.
      • Wearing a wig meant these people shaved their heads so the fad made the lice infest the wig instead of irritating their scalps.
      • And think about it, getting lice out of an inanimate object like a wig is a lot easier than getting them out of your own hair. You can boil the wig, send it to a professional to delouse it. Tons of options.
    • Then the wigs started to die off.
      • During the 1790’s the French Revolution was in full swing. The commoners saw the wig as a symbol that their oppressors wore and so it quickly went out of style there. Then in 1795 William Pitt levied a tax on hair powder in Britain. These two events within the same decade in the two countries that started the craze put an end to the wig wearing days of the common people.
      • And while wearing natural hair has been the norm ever since for everyday people, the British parliament still requires a wig for formal court attire.
They just look ridiculous to me.
  • And it is one thing to hold on to an old style in your own country, but to make all of your colonies adopt the same ridiculous tradition just seems cruel. Today Canada and Australia’s legal systems don’t sport white wigs with little poofy curls in them. But unfortunately former colonies like Jamaica and most former African Colonies still do.
  • Thankfully those former colonies are starting to change the wig wearing policy. Because once you know the history behind it, it seems even more ridiculous.
    • and that’s all I’ve got on the history of wigs. I know I talked a LOT more about syphilis than powdered wigs, but the syphilis part was a lot more interesting to me. Plus, if we want to be more historically accurate and inclusive, we should start calling them Syphilis Wigs instead. Yeah… I think I can make that catch on lol.
  • Thanks for listening Who’d a Thunkers!
    • until next week 🙂
    • Be sure to check out all the sources I used for this episode on the blog. I used everything from a Joe Rogan Podcast clip to published scholarly journals. All of which, like I said, are included on the accompanying blog post.