The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Red Hair in the New York Times

One of my favourite repositories for red hair stories on the internet is The New York Times archive. Some of the pieces from the 19th and early 20th century are particularly quaint and amusing. The following is a summary of the articles I came across that captured my interest in some way.

The Redheaded Girl and the White Horse

When I searched the New York Times I came across several articles that touched upon the esoteric, their themes including a "red-haired, blue-eyed ghost," a race of "red-haired" dwarfs in Spain and the remnants of redheaded Celts in Turkestan. My favourite article, however, was one that concerned the superstition of the redheaded girl and the white horse.

Pegasus Map

To summarise, it would appear that there was a superstition present in 19th century America that stated that whenever a red-headed girl was seen a white horse would be seen soon after. The writer of the article comments on this apparent belief and speculates as to how it came about. I quote from it at length:

"The time was when a philosopher of this town, meeting a girl with the auburn hair on Broadway, need only spin on his heel to regale his vision with the spectacle of a white horse coming from the opposite direction. And in the good old days, a lover of omens could stroll through the Bowery and count the mystic conjunctions hour after hour, until he had accumulated enough material to fill a dream book."

Charting its history the writer continues:

"The only thing really certain about this myth is that it has become well established in the United States, where ordinary charms, omens, and prognostications are at a discount. Long before the civil war, the superstition was current in the South, especially in Georgia. It was a common thing for a red-headed girl to sit at her window and count the white horses as they passed. Popular games were founded on the idea that wherever and whenever a red-headed girl was seen, there would also be seen a white horse."

Continuing:

"Throughout the country, from Maine to California, this superstition, or myth has grown into a common saying, frequently the occasion of much ridicule and of no little embarrassment to the red-headed girl. The idea beyond the saying is rational enough. White horses are relatively scarce. So are red-headed girls. Therefore, the two might naturally be supposed to be in conjunction. No saying is so ridiculous as not to obtain some believers, but no superstition can last long without some signs behind it. The saying of the red-headed girl and the white horse has stood the test of time remarkably well. Indeed it is surprising how many persons - skeptical at first - have come to firmly believe this saying, after they have observed for themselves the curious coincidences which it involves. It has broken out violently in places...[t]here was an outbreak of this kind in New-York five years ago."

Commenting further, the writer then states:

"Some of the believers in the superstition have aggravated themselves into fanaticism. They have degenerated into cranks. There are some theosophists for example, who hold that a red-headed woman, after death, changes into a white horse and vice verse, ad infinitum."

The writer then speculates as to whether "Mr. Darwin's theory of natural selection" can account for it and whether some relationship between red hair and white horses might be found in the fossil record.

Although the superstition is clearly quite unknown today it must have been very common at the time, as I found more references to it in other articles. There was one article titled "Red Heads and the Pale Horse," which stated that it was more difficult for a red-haired person to get life insurance. Another about a red-haired manager that painted advertisements onto white horses in order to drum up business, and a final article about a job advertisement that specified redheads.

The advert read: "WANTED.-Stenographer; also girls, other positions; must have red hair." Commenting on the multitude of redheaded women that turned up for interviews the journalist wrote "The heads of hair that came in reply to the advertisement ranged in hue from a ruddy gold to the deepest auburn, and they arrived in such numbers as to disprove, for the nonce, the more or less generally accepted adage about the appearance of white horses." Incidentally, the employer, when asked why he specified redheads stated "I think they are brighter. They take hold better, and I like to see them about me, too." Somehow I don't think an employer would get away with that sort of thing today.

Prejudice

I also found several articles in the New York Times that sought to explain the prejudice against red hair. One mentioned that in the Middle Ages red hair was seen as "a burning brand of infidelity" and another article recounted some popular European verses about it, including:

An old Latin proverb which stated:

"Raro breves humiles vidi ruffosque fideles."
(Proud are the short, and untrustworthy the red haired.)

Another in Italian, stating:

"Capelli Rossi, o tutto foco o tutto mosci."
(Red hair, either all fire or all softness.)

And an old French rhyme that stated:

"Homme roux et femme barbue
Do trente pas loin le salue,
Avsoques trois pierres au poing
Pour t'en aider a ton besoign."

(A redhead or bearded woman,
Salute at thirty feet,
With three stones in thy fist,
To defend thee in thy need.)

Another article told of how employees at London's John Lewis Department Store had went on strike, partly in protest at Lewis's refusal to employ redheads - "One of the complaints made by the employe[e]s is that Lewis would not have redheaded or auburn haired girls on his staff, and that if a girl "hennaed her hair," she was dismissed."

De Crinibus Rufis

Another excellent article I came across was titled "De Crinibus Rufis" and it concerned the tale of two redheaded women that faced each other in court. Before acquainting the reader with the actual detail of the story the journalist first recounted some of the prejudiced opinions that people had about red hair at the time. Stating that there was a "conviction that redness of hair is the outward sign of an inward and spiritual fieriness of disposition" and also that "the loveliest red head is taken as a waving of the torch of danger."

The writer then notes "there is a shade more specifically known as "brick-top," which does not strongly appeal to the artistic sense," continuing "red hair is no longer scoffed at aesthetically, but it is still held to be an index of a violent and irascible disposition."

Commenting further upon the belief that redheads are fiery the writer then states:

"Nay, the vulgar lover does not scruple to attribute murderous propensities to the red-headed girl. What else can be the inner meaning of that superficially silly connection between the red-headed girl and the white horse but an occult reference to the pale horse of the Apocalypse, with Death for his terrible rider and Hell following?" Once again with the white horse.

The writer then gets on to the actual story, writing, with a touch of humour:

"Mrs. Hardenbrook, the defendant, was a red-headed woman, who occupied a flat, with the incidental adjuncts of a red-headed servant girl and a husband, (color of hair unspecified, and probably bald.)"

The writer then tells how the defendant, Mrs Hardenbrook, was in court for beating her servant girl with "rufous fury." Claiming that "a tuft of red hair has been filed...in the civil suit and marked "Exhibit A"...the unthinking will see in it a vindication of the old superstition about the red-headed woman."

To great credit the writer then ends the article by trying to dispel the myth:

"This tale is, in fine, a tale of a red-headed tigress and a red-headed lamb, and there is really nothing proved, or even indicated, any more than if women with other-coloured hair had been concerned...[i]t is time that the degrading and secular superstition touching the tempestuousness of red-haired women should cease."

Redheaded Orphans

Possibly the saddest article I came across whilst scouring the archive was this one about red-haired orphans. The article stated:

"Fifty-two black-haired, brown-haired, yellow-haired, and tow-headed children from New York Roman Catholic foundling and orphan asylums filled a special car at the Union Station this morning, waiting to be adopted. No red-headed children or children with freckles were among them. Red-headed children, especially those with freckles, are not easily placed in homes, even if their hair is of the Titian tint and the freckles beauty spots."

The agent in charge of the children said he "had invariably been told that red-headed children fought too much, and had bad tempers generally." Although he didn't "agree with this verdict" he found it "difficult to overcome a tradition that has stood for many generations."

A Game for Young Gentlemen

On a much lighter note here is another article I came across. It talks of a new game popularised by young men at athletics clubs and universities in the early 20th century. I'll reproduce the article here, almost in its entirety, as I don't think I could do it justice if I paraphrased. Also, it sounds so bizarre I'm still not sure if the writer is actually being serious or not.

"Five young gentlemen with red hair, and five young gentlemen who are prematurely bald dress themselves in gingham clothing with a wide sash over the left shoulder. (The purpose of the sash appears later - the gingham clothing is just for pure deviltry.)"

"The five young gentlemen with red hair range themselves in a solid front directly opposite the five young gentlemen who are prematurely bald. The red-haired young gentlemen then say, in chorus, softly, yet distinctly, "If we cannot possess red hair, let us have none at all." To this pretty compliment the five prematurely bald young gentlemen reply, smiling pleasantly as they speak, "Thank you so much!""

"Instead of saying, "Not at all!" as would naturally be expected, the young gentlemen whose hair are red (we use the plural advisedly) step gracefully forward and seize the sashes of the other contestants in the game. These, in turn, also seize sashes. Being paired off, they now waltz gently about the apartment where the game is being played to the music of a Hungarian orchestra, which is concealed behind banks of flowers, rare exotics, [etc]."

"At this point the spectators of the game are taken violently insane, thus presenting the superb finale in which everybody present actually takes part in the game. This is so different from football and the cruder forms of sport that it quite charms every one."

"Part of the fun of this newest game for young gentlemen is the extreme difficultly in finding any young gentleman with red hair who will consent to play in the game. But when once found, they play a strong game."

I'll end this journey through the New York Times with an article that both amused and frightened me. It simply read:

"Four hundred "red heads" from Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Illinois held their first annual reunion here today and organised the Red Head League of America. The next reunion will be held here in August, 1917, the league decided. Leon Louis of Anderson, Ind., was elected Supreme President. The only requirement for membership in the league is that one must have red hair."

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