New-York Historical Society

A costly fashion… literally.

Sir Henry Clinton’s hair powder duty certificate, 1795 (Donald F. Clark Collection, MS 118)

This 1795 certificate documents that Sir Henry Clinton, the general and former Commander-in-Chief for North America of the British Army during the Revolution, paid the hair powder duty instituted in Great Britain in that year. The duty itself was one guinea, spawning the nickname “guinea pig” for those who paid it.

It may look unassuming, but this document marks a pivotal moment in the decline of a ubiquitous 18th century fashion. Once a mainstay of a gentleman’s attire, by this point the powdered wig fashion survived only among conservatives and older gentlemen — men adverse to hairstyles inspired by the egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution. One might even suspect that the authorities were playing fashion police by enacting a levy that was sure to put the powdered wig to rest for good, especially since the law carried with it a steep 20 pound fine for any rogue who dared step out with hair powder and no certificate.

Sir Henry Clinton, 1791. (Portrait File, PR 052)

Needless to say powdered wigs didn’t last much longer, and neither did Henry Clinton, who passed away in December of 1795.

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