Cupid’s Disease

The syphilis outbreak sparked a surge in wigmaking. Victims hid their baldness, as well as the bloody sores that covered their head and faces, with wigs made of horse, goat, or human hair. 

Are you familiar with the term ‘Bigwig’? If so, are you aware of its derivation? It is a historical term but is still used today. Historically, a Bigwig was someone of great wealth and social status. Someone of nobility or someone belonging to the upper classes. Today it is often used to describe someone who is none of the above. But likes to be perceived to be. Someone who is pretentious. There is an air of grandeur about the phrase, and it originated in Victorian times. Victorian times too have an air of grandeur and are often romanticised on TV and film. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The very fact that the term ‘Bigwig’ is alive at all is testament to that.

In the 16th century, syphilis, the venereal disease, was widely prevalent and incurable. It thrived amongst the Victorian people and, as it had no understanding of the class system, everyone was susceptible. It was second only to the ‘Black Death’ plague in terms of its severity. It killed millions during this time. Its medical term is ‘Bacterium Treponema Pallidum’ and it has four stages of magnitude: Primary, Secondary, Latent and Tertiary. The Primary stage classically presents with pustules, which are firm, non-itchy skin ulceration, but there may be multiple sores, as well as hair loss. In Secondary syphilis, a rash appears, which frequently involves the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. There may also be sores in the mouth. In Latent syphilis, which can last for years, there are no symptoms. In Tertiary syphilis, there are gummas, which are soft, non-cancerous growths, as well as neurological problems and heart symptoms.

Victorians had no understanding of germs, there was no medication, no anaesthesia and they believed that washing yourself made you more open to disease or infection: Which meant their personal hygiene was appalling. They were advised by their doctors and priests not to wash – Thomas Moulton, a Dominican Friar at the time advised: ‘use no baths or stoves; nor sweat not too much, for all open the pores of a man’s body and make the venomous air enter and infect the blood.’ This allowed the disease to fester and spread not only in the host but throughout Europe.

Having long hair in Victorian times was a fashion statement – the longer and more flamboyant the hair, the more attractive the person was perceived to be. As hair-loss was a side-effect of syphilis, balding became a major embarrassment to all sufferers. The top of the head was a prominent position for open wounds and sores caused by the syphilis and when the hair began to fall out, the pustules became obvious. To hide their shame, men and women would shave their heads and cover their embarrassment with a wig. These wigs became known as perukes.

The syphilis outbreak sparked a surge in wigmaking. Victims hid their baldness, as well as the bloody sores that covered their head and faces, with wigs made of horse, goat, or human hair. Perukes were also coated with powder and scented with lavender or orange to try and mask the smell from the open wound, as well as the fact the wearer has not bathed for a substantial period of time, as they believed washing would open the pores to more infection. The powder used varied between many things such as talcum powder, starch, ground orris root, rice powder, chalk or even plaster of Paris. These materials were expensive, meaning only the wealthy could afford them. George Washington is known to have used a variety of them.

Some of these powders, you may notice, are the very same that a person in the 18th century might have used for edible, rather than aesthetic, purposes. Which brings us back to Rousseau’s quote about the bread. Wealthy people were literally sprinkling their hair with corn starch and rice powder while peasants starved to death. Although common, wigs were not exactly stylish. They were just a shameful necessity. That changed in 1655, when the King of France started losing his hair.

Louis XIV was only 17 when his mop started thinning due to syphilis. Worried that baldness would hurt his reputation, Louis hired 48 wigmakers to save his image. Five years later, the King of England who was Louis’s cousin, Charles II, did the same thing when his hair started to grey. He too was suffering from the disease. Courtiers and other aristocrats immediately copied the two kings. They sported wigs, and the style trickled down to the upper-middle class. Europe’s newest fad was born.

The cost of wigs soared, as now King’s the upper echelon of aristocracy were wearing them and perukes became a scheme for flaunting wealth. Much like ‘influencers’ of today. An everyday wig cost about 25 shillings. This was equivalent to one week’s pay for a common Londoner. The price for large, elaborate perukes ballooned to as high as 800 shillings. The term ‘Bigwig’ was coined to describe snobs who could afford big, extravagant powdered perukes, as they became a way of displaying wealth. As well as doubling up as a means of hiding their little secret that lay underneath.

When Louis and Charles died, wigs stayed around. Perukes remained popular because they were so practical. Due to the lack of basic hygiene at the time, head lice were common and infested the population. Nit-picking was painful and time consuming. Wigs, however, curbed the problem. Lice stopped infesting people’s hair, which had to be shaved for the peruke to fit and camped out on wigs instead. Delousing a wig was much easier than delousing a head of hair. The answer was to send the dirty headpiece to a wigmaker, who would boil the wig and remove the nits.

The disease would eventually eat the skin of the sufferer and would then begin to make its way to the skeletal system and erode the bones. The pustules would eventually burst and the extremities of the victim would rot. The nose would cave in on itself. Known as ‘saddle nose’ this was in the tertiary stage. This led to the emergence and widespread popularity of ‘No Nose Clubs’. A no nose club was essentially that, it was a club/society much like any of today, where people who no longer had a nose due to syphilis could get together and socialise without judgement. A gentleman named Mr. Crampton is credited with this idea.

A woman named Miss Sanborn, who suffered from syphilis and wore a fake nose, reported to her local paper the following story:

“Miss Sanborn tells us that an eccentric gentleman, having taken a fancy to see a large party of nose-less persons, invited everyone thus afflicted, whom he met in the streets, to dine on a certain day at a tavern, where he formed then into a brotherhood. He ordered a very plentiful dinner and told the landlord who were to be his guests, that he might be a little prepared for their appearance. No sooner was the hand of Covent Garden dial upon the stroke of the hour appointed than the no-nose company began to drop in, asking for Mr Crampton, which was the feigned name of their host, and succeeding one another so thickly that the waiter could scarcely show one upstairs before he had another to conduct. As the number increased, the surprise grew the greater among all that were present, who stared at one another with unaccustomed bashfulness and confused oddness, as if every sinner beheld his own iniquities in the faces of his companions”.

The report goes on to say, “This club met every month for a whole joyous year, when its founder died, and the flat-faced community were unhappily dissolved.”

By the late 18th century, the trend was dying out. French citizens ousted the peruke during the Revolution, and Brits stopped wearing wigs after William Pitt levied a tax on hair powder in 1795. However, it wasn’t until the discovery of penicillin in 1928 that the disease had a cure and became no longer fatal. The next time you see a period film set between roughly 16th-18th century Europe and see the distinguished characters such as Kings, aristocrats, presidents, politicians and composers decked out in their perukes often adorned with ribbons and bows, remind yourself of what might lurk underneath. The Victorian era, not so romantic after all.

Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

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