Hair Powder Annual Duty


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[003528] [Stamp Office Certificate for Hair Powder Duty]. Certificate for the Payment of Hair Powder Annual Duty, 1798. London: Stamp Office, 1798. First Edition. 16mo (Oblong). Framed and Glazed. Ephemera. Good. Printed certificate for the payment of Hair Powder Annual Duty for 1798, printed in red and completed in manuscript, approximately 195mm x 150mm in size, in a frame 270mm x 225mm in size, with official hair powder duty blind stamp, at a cost of one pound and one shilling.

Laid on to card, with a couple of very small tears, light water staining to foot and with scuff to bottom right hand corner of card (not affecting the document).

This certificate is made out to a Major Willson of Didlington in Norfolk (possibly the Major Wilson mentioned in the Sporting Magazine, Volume 46 as being one of the people responsible for the reviving of hawking “on a considerable scale … [whose] subscription hawks, under the management of German falconers, have afforded much amusement to numerous spectators at Didlington and the neighbourhood”.

Introduced in 1786 and eventually abolished in 1869, initially only the powder was taxed, but by 1795 users were obliged to register and get a licence at the cost of a guinea a year (one pound, one shilling). Hair powder was the “most widely used cosmetic in late eighteenth century Britain … made of worm-eaten or rotten wood, or dried bones, or bones ‘calcined to whiteness’, but the best powder was a preparation of pure starch made from wheat … it was scented with one or more of a host of perfumes” (Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism, page 147). The penalty for wearing powder without a licence was £20. Pitt’s announcement of the tax “caused no commotion in the Commons” (Ibid, page 155), outside parliament, however, it “proved much harder to separate the issue of hair powder from the satirical baggage which usually encumbered the mention of fashion and cosmetics. The tax was discussed in almost every medium of print – in popular songs sold by ballad-sellers, in poems and magazine verses, in caricatures, handbills, newspapers, periodicals and in pamphlets whether economic, religious or legal. Many of these texts, though they are far from unanimous in the nature of their opposition to the tax, are anti-Pittite, hostile to the war with France, and published by (to one degree or another) radical, sometimes plebian booksellers” (Ibid, page 160). Indeed, many members of the radical movement “were perfectly happy that not wearing powder should be regarded as a badge of democratic, even republican politics” (Ibid, page 201), with the perfumier John Hart arguing the act would “promote republicanism by promoting the crop” (Ibid). Others were concerned that use of starch in hair powder was affecting the amount and cost of bread, John Donaldson estimating that the “powdering of hair with flour or scented starch diverted from the food supply each year [was] the equivalent of 30,571,266 quartern [four pound], loaves … [which] would have fed a third of a million people for an entire year” (Ibid, page 175). So the hair powder tax impinged “directly on the two most important questions of the year, the crisis in the food supply and the determination of Pitt’s government to continue the war against France” (Ibid, pages 207-8).

Rickards, Encyclopedia of Ephemera, page 318-9