Sunday, November 24, 2013

A curly tale of pigtails

For anyone who has ever bought a real hair wig or had extensions, this story will really make your hair curl and you will be glad you weren’t living a century ago.

In October and November of 1905, a very unusual coroner’s case appeared in the British newspapers that caused alarm and even panic among the community. A Yorkshire man called John Deighton died from anthrax, still a very nasty disease to contact in our time and nearly always fatal in the pre-antiobiotic age. 

But what was most worrying is that it was alleged he had contracted it through his job as a wool-comber in which he had opened bales of Chinese pigtails (or queues) imported into Britain for use in the wig trade. The coroner had ordered that a doctor examine the said pigtails, which he did, and came to the conclusion that although many unknown spores were present in the bales, none of them contained the bacillus associated with anthrax.
But the newspapers grabbed the story and it was repeated around the world with varying degrees of hysteria. This one comes from a New Zealand newspaper on PapersPast:

The astonishing statement was made at an inquest at Bradford recently that large quantities of Chinese pigtails are imported into England for commercial purposes.

The fact came out during an inquiry into the death from anthrax of a man employed by a firm of wool-combers. The foreman related that the workman, John Deighton, had been employed in opening camel hair, low foreign wool, low hair, and human hair.
The Coroner: Do you know where human hair comes from?
The foreman: I believe that comes from China.
Mr Seal (H.M. factory inspector): Have you ever known the firm to use, human hair from China before?
The foreman: Yes,we have done a good bit of it. It comes in 1000 1lb lots.
Has any sickness or illness been associated with the time when you were dealing with human hair? - No.
How does the hair appear when it comes in? - Just as if it had been cut from a Chinaman's head and rolled up.
Is it in pigtails then? - Yes.
It might have been cut from the head of a man suffering from plague or an infectious disease for all you know? - Yes.
Dr. Logan and Deighton had been ineffectually inoculated with selavo [sic. should be Schlavo’s] serum. Death was due to general anthrax.
The Coroner said, under the circumstances, and considering that two cases of anthrax had occurred at these works, he thought it was necessary to have further inquiries with regard to human hair being manipulated by the firm. He thought it was necessary to adjourn the case in order to have some of this hair examined as a protection for the general public.
The Los Angeles Herald put a different spin on it altogether and the wool-sorter Deighton had morphed into a woman wearing artificial hair, with greater emphasis on the fact that pigtails were used for automobiling fringe nets.


Artificial Hair Made From Chinese Appanage Causes Woman's Demise

Special cable to The Herald
LONDON, Oct. 28. — A new warning note to women who go automobiling has been sounded at an inquest at Bradford on the body of a woman who died from anthrax, caused by wearing artificial hair made from a Chinese pigtail, and it came out in the evidence that Chinese pigtails were largely imported for the purpose of making, among other things, fringe nets for automobiling.
The coroner remarked that as the case in question showed how serious was the danger from the wearing of these fringe nets, all this hair ought to be bacteriologically examined, and that, in fact, this would be done now at the factory where the fatal case of anthrax had been caused, and an application would be made at the home office for an order requiring special precautions to be taken at all factories where artificial hair was made up.

As these pigtails were regularly exported by the ton into Europe and America, prior to the demise of the custom in China shortly before the First World War, that would have amounted to an awful lot of Chinese hair. Many pigtails were reputed to have come from decapitated bandits as detailed in another lurid article from the Los Angeles Herald of 23 June 1908. What a grotesque and creepy thought that your fashionable hairpiece might have come from an executed man or had been dug up by grave-robbers!

See article San Francisco call, Nov 8, 1908 Chronicling America

Ton of Pigtails from Bandits Who Have Been Beheaded Brought to New York In Big Freighter Wray Castle
 NEW YORK, June 22.—
A ton of Chinese hair for the "rats" of American women formed part of the cargo of the big freighter, Wray Castle, which has just arrived from the Orient. The hair came from the heads of Chinese bandits who had been beheaded and is valued at more than $5000.  
Enough of this hair is on board the Wray Castle to provide thousands of American girls with the necessary "filling," and great care was taken on the freighter to keep it from exposure of any sort that might spoil it for the market in the United States.
Hardly had the consignment of the Chinese hair been brought to the American docks on Staten island before the British steamer Seneca arrived at quarantine with twenty-two cases of Chinese pigtails, which, according to Captain Grimes, were collected in Chinese cemeteries by a crafty American, who collected the gruesome souvenirs for profit in three months' plunder in Chinese burial grounds.

From 1910 onwards, the pigtail started to disappear in China and no doubt other sources had to be found for ladies’ hair rats (presumably extensions), but anthrax continued to be a very real risk, especially to workers in the cheap fur industry. American newspapers carried regular reports of death, mostly of girls who had been wearing fur collars or coats.

And this alarmist image shows that there just as much risk from poorly processed and domestic cat skins than as from the Chinese pigtails. Ugh and more ugh!

See article The Day Book, December 10 1915, Chronicling America

Watch out ladies, if the furs don't get you, then the fringe nets or false hair will!!

General articles on the history and demise of the Chinese pigtail, or queue.


  1. Dear Regina of Arebeia,
    I am currently researching this fascinating topic. I am wondering if the image you have caption "Watch out ladies, if the furs don't get you, then the fringe nets or false hair will!" is originally captioned as such, or if this is your alliteration...

  2. The caption wording is my own invention. The image was part of an advertisement c 1905 for the Baker Electric Car.

  3. ...lovely, okay, thank you very much for your prompt reply, including image info.