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Roundtable: Whiskerology, the Meaning of Hair in Nineteenth-Century America

Join us for the first Bancroft Library Roundtable of the 2015-2016 academic year, taking place in The Faculty Club at noon on Thursday, September 17.  Sarah Gold McBride, doctoral candidate in history at UC Berkeley, will present “Whiskerology: The Meaning of Hair in Nineteenth-Century America.”

Please note: This month, we will meet in the O’Neill Room of The Faculty Club.

In 1846, a New Orleans Picayune reporter proposed a new branch of natural science that, he argued, could provide scientists with reliable evidence of a person’s genuine identity. He called this new field “whiskerology,” the scientific study of facial hair. Though this idea may never have moved beyond the level of suggestion, the Picayune reporter represented a common belief among nineteenth-century Americans: that hair could expose the truth about the person from whose body it grew. Using evidence drawn from across American life – including scientific findings, legal practice, slavery, popular art, immigration debates, and agitation for women’s rights – this talk will explore how nineteenth-century Americans understood the meaning of hair. It was not just a means of creative self-expression, as it would come to function in the twentieth century. Instead, it was understood to be a trustworthy method to quickly classify a stranger – to know if someone was trustworthy, or courageous, or criminally inclined. Studying hair in historical context allows us to better understand how nineteenth-century Americans made sense of the increasingly modern society in which they lived.

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