Carla Killough McClafferty
illuminating lives from the past, impacting lives in the present
When you hear the name George Washington, what comes to mind? If you are like most people, you think about his image on the one dollar bill. And it’s no wonder since 9 billion dollar bills are in circulation at all times. This image is so familiar we sometimes forget that Washington wasn’t always a 64-year-old man. He certainly wasn’t born with white hair and dentures!
What did George Washington look like when he was a young man? The leadership of Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, decided to find out. They gathered a group of experts to do a forensic study of George Washington. Their goal was to create three wax figures that show him at the ages of 19, 45 and 57 years old.
To make sure the wax figures would look like the real George Washington, the hair they used must be the right color. The experts didn’t have to guess what color his hair was. They looked at George Washington’s real hair. Many locks of his hair still exist today. Why? Because in the 18th century it was common to keep small locks of hair that belonged to someone you loved or admired. (Sometimes even strangers would ask Washington for a lock of his hair to keep as a token of their respect for him.)
Can you guess what color Washington’s hair was when he was 19 years old? His natural hair was reddish brown (it wasn’t really red, and it wasn’t really brown—it was in between). Sometimes this color is described as “chestnut.”
Once the experts knew Washington’s hair color, they ordered human hair from a “hair merchant” in London, England. (Real people sell their hair to them.) The cost was about $300.00 for the hair used on the figure of Washington at 19. Sue Day, an artist, used a needle-like tool to place one human hair at a time directly into the wax head. She consulted portraits of Washington to make sure the shape of his hairline was right.
When the wax figure of young George Washington was finished, his long chestnut hair was pulled back into a queue (we would call it a ponytail). A large black silk bow was placed in his hair.
Today visitors to Mount Vernon can see what George Washington really looked like at the age of 19. And he looks great.
Carla McClafferty wrote a book on the subject of this Nonfiction Minute. For more information on THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: REMAKING A PRESIDENTIAL ICON (Carolrhoda, 2011) and for access to lesson plans and enrichment materials based on the award-winning book, click here.
Carla Killough McClafferty is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
McClafferty, Carla Killlough. "George Washington's Hair." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 22 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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