Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?

For nearly two centuries, powdered wigs—called perukes—were all the rage. The chic hairpiece would have never become popular, however, if it hadn't been for a venereal disease, a pair of self-conscious kings, and poor hair hygiene.  

The peruke’s story begins like many others—with syphilis. By 1580, the STD had become the worst epidemic to strike Europe since the Black Death. According to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogged London’s hospitals, and more filtered in each day. Without antibiotics, victims faced the full brunt of the disease: open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss. Baldness swept the land.

At the time, hair loss was a one-way ticket to public embarrassment. Long hair was a trendy status symbol, and a bald dome could stain any reputation. When Samuel Pepys’s brother acquired syphilis, the diarist wrote, “If [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head—which will be a very great shame to me.” Hair was that big of a deal.

Cover-Up

And so, the syphilis outbreak sparked a surge in wigmaking. Victims hid their baldness, as well as the bloody sores that scoured their faces, with wigs made of horse, goat, or human hair. Perukes were also coated with powder—scented with lavender or orange—to hide any funky aromas. 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. Worried that baldness would hurt his reputation, Louis hired 48 wigmakers to save his image. Five years later, the King of England—Louis’s cousin, Charles II—did the same thing when his hair started to gray (both men likely had syphilis). 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 increased, and perukes became a scheme for flaunting wealth. An everyday wig cost about 25 shillings—a week’s pay for a common Londoner. The bill for large, elaborate perukes ballooned to as high as 800 shillings. The word “bigwig” was coined to describe snobs who could afford big, poufy perukes.

When Louis and Charles died, wigs stayed around. Perukes remained popular because they were so practical. At the time, head lice were everywhere, and nitpicking 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: you’d send the dirty headpiece to a wigmaker, who would boil the wig and remove the nits.

Wig Out

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. Short, natural hair became the new craze, and it would stay that way for another two centuries or so.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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