Hair Powder Tax

The cost of powdering one's wig, what!

Hair Powder Tax

One of the more obscure sources of information for family historians focussing on the 18th Century are the returns of hair powder certificates. The collection of Occupational and Quarter Sessions Records from Warwickshire County Record Office includes one small section that features these returns for the years 1795 and 1796.

One certainty in life, taxes!

The administration of William Pitt the Younger was responsible for a whole series of taxes at the end of the 18th Century, including the first income tax, either directly or indirectly to help fund the expensive war with Napoleonic France. The introduction of a tax on hair powder was one such measure. It required individuals using hair powder to acquire a certificate from their local J.P. on which a stamp duty of one guinea was paid. The list of those that had paid was lodged at the local Quarter Session court and a copy of the list affixed to the door of the parish church by the parish constable.

What information can I find?

The information included in the list provides a date, a parish, a list of names and a description (usually the relationship to the head of the household or another role such as servant). So like a census return it is possible to piece together some familial relationships. The lists however will of course be much less complete than a census because most people were not of a status to wear wigs or use hair powder. There were also many exemptions such as clergymen with an income of under £100 a year, non-commissioned officers, militia, mariners, officers in the navy below commander, and many others.

One payment was acceptable for a group of servants in one household, so for example Lady Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey lists a housekeeper, house steward, groom, three butlers and a coachman. A word of caution though, housekeeper usually refers to the head of a household rather than a servant and similarly references to ‘inmate’ refers to lodgers not the occupant of some institution.

Dedicated followers of fashion?

The tax on hair powder was not repealed until 1869 but by the mid-19th century less than 1,000 people a year nationwide were paying the tax. Some say that the tax hastened the decline in hair powder usage as a fashion; it certainly coincided with the abandoning of wigs for a shorter, more natural hairstyle amongst fashionable young men in Regency England.

In terms of a genealogical resource for Warwickshire what we are left with is a chronologically brief sample (with good geographical coverage) of well to do society (and their servants) in the mid-1790s, which may well be worth a look if you are focussing on that period.