Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall were close and lifelong friends. They moved in the same Boston social circles, shared companions, dined together and discussed politics. But on one important matter they parted company: the periwig.
Mather, the Puritan minister, wore a long, brown, curled periwig that emphasized his large nose. Sewall, the judge and printer, wore a black skullcap to hide his bald pate. Mather defended the periwig in a sermon, while Sewall denounced it whenever he got the chance.
The two Puritans weren’t alone. Across the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 17th century, the controversy raged over the periwig, a new fashion from Europe.
Wig opponents called it wasteful and extravagant. It also made men look as if they had more interest in ‘courting a maid’ than to ponder God’s will, they said.
Supporters called it a harmless fashion and accused the anti-periwig faction of hypocrisy.
During the English Civil Wars, the followers of the Stuart kings wore periwigs. Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan supporters did not. When Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, his courtiers enthusiastically adopted the periwig.
Curly, shoulder-length hair had been fashionable among European men since the 1620s. The periwig mimicked that fashion with human hair, animal hair or even flax.
The first generation of Puritans who came to New England abhorred fashionable excess. In 1634, the Plymouth General Court banned such showy fashions as slashed sleeves, silver and gold lace, girdles and hatbands.
But the second generation of Puritans, to which Mather (born in 1663) belonged, began to embrace such degeneracy. Sewall, born a decade before Mather, couldn’t stand the sight of the periwig.
Samuel Sewall Rails
Sewall peppered his diary with disapproving observations of people who wore the periwig. In a eulogy for a schoolmaster, Ezekiel Cheever, he ended with the sentence, “He abominated periwigs.”
When Sewall learned Josiah Willard, the son of his minister, had taken to wearing a periwig, he marched over to the young man’s house and lectured him. Willard complained his hair was too straight, but he agreed to leave off his wig when his hair grew out. The gesture didn’t appease Sewall. He visited the sins of the son on the father and attended another church.
Sewall wasn’t alone. Massachusetts magistrates in 1649 had protested that long hair ‘after the manner of ruffians and barbarous Indians, hath begun to invade New England contrary to the rule of God’s word.’
In 1654, Thomas Hall wrote an essay called The Loathsomeness of Long Hair. He denounced elaborate hairstyles as ‘against the modest, civil, and commendable custom of our nation, til lately that we began to follow the French and Spaniards, who yet are known Papists and Idolaters.’
Another reason to detest the periwig: As a sign of wealth and status, it might allow poorer people to impersonate the gentry. “It removes a means of distinguishing one man from another,” wrote Nicholas Noyes, a minister who, like Sewall, presided over the Salem witch trials.
Such a toppling of the social hierarchy was profoundly disturbing to some Puritans.
The Pro-Periwig Faction
The Rev. Samuel Stoddard preached in favor of the periwig, arguing ‘God allowed man “by art to supply the defects of nature.”
Others said it kept their heads warm.
Cotton Mather himself delivered a sermon defending the wig. He defined hypocrisy as ‘to be zealous against an innocent fashion’ and yet to ignore ‘great immoralities.’
“I expected not to hear a vindication of periwigs in Boston Pulpit by Mr. Mather,” wrote Sewall.
In 1679, however, the Massachusetts General Court passed a series of laws intended to turn the people back to the Lord ‘from whom we have departed with a great Backsliding.’
The lawmakers directed local grand juries to present men wearing long hair or periwigs to the court. They authorized the local magistrates to proceed against such delinquents either by ‘Admonition, Fine, or Correction, according to their good discretion.”
Times were changing, though, and as the colonies grew more prosperous and more cosmopolitan, the periwig didn’t go away.
And Samuel Sewall found himself on the defensive. In October 1720, one of Sewall’s colleagues on the Executive Council noted his balding head. He suggested Sewall get a wig. Sewall replied that his bald head was his ‘chief ornament.’
After Sewall’s first wife died, he tried, often without success, to woo a new one. One of his targets, Catherine Winthrop, told him he needed a wig. He declined the wig and she declined him.
The wearing of the periwig persisted until the last decades of the 18th century. John Singleton Copley’s portrait of John Adams shows him in a periwig. But by the time his son became president in 1825, the periwig had finally disappeared.
This story was updated in 2022.
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