by Diana Bulls
One of the most curious items to be found on a Victorian lady’s dressing table was a hair receiver. This was a small bowl with a hole in the lid. It was often part of a dressing table set, with a matching powder box. And why you ask, would anyone need a hair receiver? Well, some kind of receptacle was needed to collect and save the hair that accumulated in a lady’s brush or comb after the required daily 100 strokes.
I know this practice does sound rather gross according to our modern standards, but in the Victorian era there was a very good reason for collecting hair. Did I say that this was the era of ‘long’ hair? I mean, really long. Victorians never cut their hair unless they were seriously ill. Long hair was considered feminine and desirable. On the other hand, it was considered scandalous for a respectable woman to wear her hair down in public — only actresses or certain other types of women in the entertainment field would do that. Young girls wore their hair long, but when they reached the age of 15 or 16, they were expected to put it “up.”
Hair was considered a woman’s “crowning glory,” and the way it was styled made the difference between a beauty and a plain Jane. Early Victorians favored the hair parted in the center and pulled back to the sides. Later it became popular to use hairpieces or wigs for more elaborate styles, although these were only affordable for the wealthy. Everyone else had to make do with ratts. And that’s where the hair receiver came in.
A ratt, sometimes spelled rat, was simply a small bag about 3-4 inches long that was stuffed with hair. That’s right — the same hair that came out of the brush and was collected in the hair receiver. The little bag was sewn shut and then used to pad the sides of the head or raise the height of the hair style. One hair style might take several ratts depending on how elaborate it was.
Every woman was concerned about her appearance. According to an article in The Delineator magazine in 1894, “The often-admired ‘crowning glory’ may be rendered almost a disfigurement if disposed unbecomingly, while a tasteful and careful dressing of the tresses, even though they are not very beautiful, will lend a decided charm to a plain face.”
Bangs were not popular at first because a wide and high forehead was considered a sign of virtue. Some experts think that another reason for displaying as much of the head as possible was because of the new, so-called science of phrenology. Victorians were fascinated by the idea that one’s personality could be determined by reading the bumps on their head.
The idea of phrenology was that parts of each person’s personality was located in specific areas of the brain. Strong traits would cause that area of the brain to be larger than others and the shape of the skull would be changed causing bumps. Having a phrenologist rub his hands over your head was like having your palm read.
But back to hair. The use of extra hair was so widespread that the Godey’s Lady’s Book from the time instructed, “When a lady is in danger of drowning, raise her by the dress and not by the hair, which oftentimes remains in the grasp.”
In addition to making ratts, hair was also used for stuffing pincushions or pillows. Hair pillows were far less prickly than those stuffed with pinfeathers and oil from the hair stuffed in pincushions helped to lubricate the pins, making it easier for them to pierce material.
Contrary to popular belief, the hair from hair receivers was not used for making hair pictures or jewelry. The Victorians did have a lot of odd pastimes. That hair would need to be quite straight and long, so it was often purchased from hair vendors. Selling your hair was one way to make a little extra money, but you would need to be pretty desperate. A curl may have been snipped to be placed in a locket, and sometimes hair was snipped from the head of a corpse and fashioned into mourning jewelry. Many people save the curls from baby’s first haircut—we still do that today.
You can identify a hair receiver by the finger-wide hole in the lid. They can be round or square and some have little feet. They are made in glass, porcelain, and even celluloid. Hair receivers were actually used up through the early 1950s. My grandmother always had one on her dressing table. Check out Quaintrelle Life, a modern day lady’s book for anachronistic living, for how to use a wool ratt in a fun, retro 1940s hair style.
A look through the listings on eBay shows hundreds of lovely hair receivers, some with matching trays and powder boxes or hat pin holders. Prices range from $5 to $500. There is a huge selection of really affordable pieces. You might consider giving one to your mother for Mother’s Day. But I would suggest filling it with potpourri instead of your hair.
Many thanks to Mike McLeod for his article on “Hair Receivers, Secret Beauty Aids of the Past” (2002), which enlightened me on the use of hair in pictures and jewelry.