Friday, February 4, 2011

Another Bit about the Bandanna

In 1872, the Douglass house in Rochester burned down. In the aftermath, Ottilie Assing wrote to her sister Ludmilla excoriating Anna for the loss of an estimated $11,000 bond and securities. Her invective was vicious, classist, and racist; but, in them, she passed on an odd piece of information. After calling Anna a "hag," Assing wrote, "She probably thought more of her wig and some dozen silver spoons."

A wig? Let's take a look at a photograph of Anna (the last was a copy of a photograph, and I'd be interested in seeing the original.) This one, also in the Cedar Hill collections, was taken sometime just before the Civil War:

Is that perhaps a wig that she is wearing? Does Cedar Hill have evidence of Anna Douglass having worn a wig? She was a dark-skinned woman, so having hair that straight would be unusual, wouldn't it? Did black women straighten their hair in the 1850s? Or does a wig explain the texture? If so, then that might also explain the bandanna.

In fact, now that I'm thinking about it. There is a collection at the Nebraska Historical Society that includes clippings of the Douglass family's hair. I distinctly remember Frederick's because it was long like in his portraits, and Rosetta's, because it was so rich. I don't remember Anna's, and the woman who kept the clippings was good friends with Anna.

I need to check on these things. I have no idea what they will mean in the end, but with someone who left behind so little for a historian to work with, I have to take what I can get, where I can get it, and try to understand her life through it.


  1. Nothing to offer about the wig or bandanna, but one of the things about women's history is how the history of personal adornment (unless with jewels, something of material value listed in estate inventories etc) seems to be lost. As with beautification practices that tended to be part of community (or even family) culture and not written down. I believe women were straightening their hair at this period, though.

    Loving the blog!

  2. Hair straightening is centuries and even during slavery Black women many times attempted to straighten their hair with heated household items.Also there were primitive permanent relaxers involving lye. Also, as a Black woman, I have to note that the darkness of skin doesn't necessarily mean your hair will be kinkier or coarser.