The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Pinkerton, Price and Beddoe

Whilst scouring Google Books for information about red hair I came across countless published papers about ethnology from the 19th century. Often written by professors and other such respected people of the time, they stand as testimony to the naivety often inherent in well educated men. Some of the beliefs and opinions expressed in these works will seem almost laughable to the modern reader, but as we laugh we must remember that some of our own beliefs may look equally ridiculous under the scrutiny of future minds.

The 19th Century was the golden age of phrenology (the belief that the character of man could be read by the shape of the skull) and it was also, sadly, the golden age of racism. Needless to say, the so-called men of science had much in the way of speculation in regards red hair, just as they did in regards other racial features. This page picks out some of the gems from the information that I came across.

Pinkerton Vs Price

An Essay on the Physiognomy and Physiology of the Present Inhabitants of Britain with Reference to Their Origin, As Goths and Celts by the Rev. T. Price.

During the early part of the 19th century there was much debate about the ethnic origins of the English, with many seeing in the "Anglo-Saxon" English a racial heritage dating back to the Germanic invaders that came across the North Sea.

Proponents of this idea included the Pinkertonians, a group of men who followed a popular theory of the time first proposed by a man named John Pinkerton. However, in an essay published in 1829 the Reverend T. Price set out to disprove this theory. Most of the following quotes come from this paper.

In essence the Pinkerton theory stated that:

"[T]he Gothic and Celtic races were originally and generically different: that this difference has ever been clear and distinct, in their physiognomic, physiological, and moral character" and that it is "as distinct, and as distinguishable" to this day.

The two characteristics were as follows:

"The Gothic tribes, it is said, were and still are red, or yellow-haired, blue-eyed, fair complexioned, large of limb, and tall of stature."

"The Celtic, on the other hand, dark-haired, dark-eyed, of swarthy complexion, and small in stature."

As well as believing that Goths were different to Celts, Pinkerton also believed that Goths were superior, stating "[w]hat a lion is to an ass, such is a Goth to a Celt."

His theory essentially stated that the people of England were of a superior stock to those of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He described the Celtic inhabitants of Britain as "a black-haired race," and stated that those with "fair faces, and red or light hair" possessed the "grand features of the Goths" and were of "Gothic extract."

Pinkerton also made a distinction between those of the Scottish Highlands and those of the Lowlands, stating that those of the Lowlands were more commonly observed to have Gothic features.

However, the Rev. T. Price was not enamoured with this theory and took it upon himself to pull the rug from under the feet of the Pinkertonians. He described the Gothic/Celtic hypothesis as "the most absurd and unfounded ever adopted by a prejudiced mind."

In trying to illustrate how little in common red hair had with Pinkerton's Germanic valour he mentions a tribe of blue-eyed redheads in the mountains of Yemen.

He also quotes from a traveller that had contact with the Tsheremisses, an apparent tribe of Lapland. His traveller described them as such - "They are of a middle stature; almost all of them have hair of a clear chestnut colour, or of a light red; these colours are most conspicuous in their beards. Their faces are very white, but their features broad; they are by no means robust, and are cowardly, timorous, thievish, and excessively obstinate." I love that last line.

One would admire the anti-Pinkerton stance the Reverend takes up were it not for some of the other views expressed in his work.

For example he talks of how climate and diet can affect physiology, quoting a Professor Camper who stated:

"It is probable, that the hair becomes long and straight, or curled or frizzled, according to the nature of the food."

The Reverend also comes up with a very strange theory to account for the differences in eye colour he observes amongst the British population.

"[T]he dark-coloured eye is always found to prevail in the neighbourhood of COAL MINES; and where COAL is used as the general fuel: while on the other hand, the light or blue eye belongs to those districts, in which that mineral is not used."

However, amusingly, he nearly doubts this coal/eye theory. For when travelling through Europe and making notice of the local eye colours he comes across a sudden change from light to dark eyes.

"[O]n approaching Liege, from Aix la Chapelle, the dark eye suddenly makes its appearance. When I first noticed this change, I was so struck with its singularity, that I began to doubt whether I had not prematurely condemned the Celto-Gothic system; and whether after all it had not some foundation in fact. It even occurred to me that this might possibly be a remnant of some ancient Cimbrian or Trevirian colony, of Celtic blood; and still retaining its melanic character. But the whole phenomenon was presently explained, by the appearance of some coal-pits."

Modern scientists beware - there's a valuable lesson in here somewhere.

Dr Beddoe

Dr Beddoe was something of a celebrity in the world of ethnology during the 19th century. His views on ethnicity were slightly more advanced than those of Pinkerton and Price, but he was still very much a man of his time. Hair colour and skull shape were something of a fascination to him.

His general hypothesis was thus:

"Black eyes and black hair are rare, except where Celtic blood may be supposed to preponderate. Hazel and light brown eyes, especially when conjoined with brown or flaxen hair, belong usually to the Teutons. In both races, the majority have blue or grey eyes, but dark grey belongs especially to the Celts. Red hair occurs everywhere; but the colour is more common, and also brighter and stronger, among some of the Celtic populations. Yellow and light brown hair are found in both races, but flaxen, and a light sandy red, belong to the Saxons and their kindred."

He also suspected that red was the original colour of hair in Europe, stating:

"There are, of course, facts, or reported facts, which would lead one to suspect that red was the original hair colour of man in Europe - at least, when living in primitive or natural conditions with much exposure, and that the development of brown pigment came later, with subjection to heat and malaria, and other influences connected with what we call civilisation."

He took a particular interest in Scotland, stating:

"[T]he frequency of red hair in the east of Scotland is remarkable, and brings to mind Tacitus's description of the Caledonii."

When speaking of a particular region of Scotland he noted "[t]he hair varies from light yellowish red, and flaxen-yellow, through divers shades of brown." He then observes, in true ethnological fashion, "[i]t is probable that Teutonic blood is as pure here as in any part of North Britain."

However, he was confused by the discrepancy between his observations regarding red hair and those of the classical writers, proffering the use of soap as a way out of this conundrum.

"I must acknowledge, that at present hair of a vivid red seems more common among the Celts, though the Roman writers pretty distinctly intimate that the Germans had it redder than the others. Probably that colour was then more common in both races than now. But the habitual use of soap by both must have tended to exaggerate the peculiarity."

To be fair to him, however, he did also state that "black and red hair are not so diametrically opposed as is generally imagined."

It is also said that Dr Beddoe measured the skulls of monks to test the theory that the arrest of intellectual achievement during the Dark Ages was a product of scholars going into monastic celibacy and leaving the work of reproduction to the lesser minded folks. He apparently observed the priestly skulls to be highly developed and claimed that the skulls left by more warlike people were of an inferior build.

In fact Dr Beddoe's use of language is so stereotypical of the time, it's hard not to be amused by his phraseology.

For example, he once said of a group of people inhabiting a particular area of Scotland, "[t]he heavy overhanging brow and deep-sunk eye, which, with the high cheek-bones, are generally sufficient to mark out a Scotchman from among a group of Saxon Englishmen, are, in this district, comparatively rare."

Then when talking of another region of Scotland he observed, "[t]he narrowness of the crania and faces in many of the women tells against their Teutonic origin...I have observed a similar type to prevail among the peasantry in the vicinity of Antwerp."

Then mentioning a another group he ponders "I think their crania are somewhat broader."

To me these, now amusing, statements stand as an illustration of how time will always inevitably turn the tables on anyone that thinks they can elevate some humans above others.

The Natural History of Man

One work that offered up a bounty of information about red hair was John Kennedy's "The Natural History of Man," published in 1851.

In a chapter on the Slavonians he wrote about two ancient tribes, one called the Sclaveni and one called the Antae. He quoted from an unspecified sixth century writer who described them both thusly:

"Their complexions and hair are neither white nor yellow, nor entirely inclined to black, but all of them are somewhat red-haired. They also live, like the Masagatae, in a hardy manner, neglectful of comfort, and, like them, are always covered with a squalid filthiness. They are by no means cruel or malicious, but resemble the Huns in their simple habits."

Kennedy then speaks of the Russians, noting:

"Many of the Russian peasantry, especially in the north, have light brown or red hair, and fair complexions, and that too where the race is pure."

He then moves on to the Allophylians. The next quote isn't really red hair related, but I couldn't resist including it for its sheer comic value.

"The first Allophylian group occupying the north of Europe comprehends the Lappes, Finns, Tschudes, and Ugrians. These are more stupid and dull, on the whole, than the Indo-European tribes."

He then describes the Tschudish Wotiaks:

"The Tschudish Wotiaks contain several tribes that are still heathen. They are generally poor, and live by the chase. They are strong-bodied, and have red hair. Jumar is the principle god of the heathen Wotiaks, who also offer sacrifices, have priests called Toma, and observe festivals in honour of their gods."

The next quote is a bit long, but it's worth reading simply for the final line.

"Amongst the mountains of the Caucasus there are various tribes, evidently belonging to separate races. Perhaps the most remarkable of these are the Circassians, the fame of whose beauty has spread far and wide. The men are described as mostly of tall stature, of thin form, but Herculean structure. They are slender about the loins, have small feet, and very strong arms. The women, according to one traveller, are not all Circassian beauties. They are for the most part well formed, with white skin, dark-brown or black hair, and regular features. Another traveller, however, maintains that they have no claim to the superior beauty which has been attributed to them. "I know not," he says "what can have given occasion to the generally-received prejudice in favour of the female Tscherkessians. A short leg, a small foot, and glaring red hair, constitute a Tscherkessian beauty."

Finally, Kennedy mentions the Boroanos, a tribe with reputed Caucasian features:

"The Boroanos. - Among the South Andian or Chilian race the most remarkable people in physical character are the white Boroanos. The existence of this people of xanthous complexion in Chili has been the subject of controversy. Molina says, "A tribe who dwell in the province of Boroa are of a clear white and red, without any intermixture of the copper colour." Captain Fitzroy saw one of these Boroanos at Valdioia. "She had blue eyes but dark hair. She told him that in her country there were many with eyes like hers, and some were of red and white complexion, and a few had red hair."

Other Noted Observations

As well as Pinkerton, Price, Beddoe and Kennedy there were also many other commentators on ethnicity during the 19th century. The following are a few other observations that caught my attention regarding red hair.

A Professor Retzius when commenting on skull shapes stated:

"On different occasions I have met with brachycephalic Scots from northern Scotland and the isles to the north. During my last sojourn in Scotland I encountered again divers individuals pertaining to this same type, having an expression altogether peculiar, their visage being short and somewhat large, their hair red, the skin of their faces marked with freckles."

In the Eclectic Magazine, published in 1849, there was an article on ethnology which stated:

"In like manner the Funge, who made themselves masters of Sennaar about three centuries ago, although originally negroes of the Shilukh nation, no longer present the physiognomy or complexion of that race, but much more nearly approach the Berberines. There appears in both cases to be a special tendency towards a red complexion, and even red hair; and among the Funge the individuals thus distinguished are stated to form a seperate caste, being known under the name of "El Akmar," or "the red people." In northern India, again, there are tribes of mountaineers descended from families which migrated at remote periods from the plains of Hindostan to high tracts in the Himalaya, especially towards the sacred rivers. Many of these have so far departed from the ordinary Hindoo aspect as to have acquired a fair complexion, with blue eyes, and auburn or red hair."

A man by the name of R. Dunn noted:

"There does exist great diversity of complexion among the African races. We see in the Kafir tribes high foreheads, prominent noses, a light brown complexion, and red hair."

And a Sir Gardner Wilkinson stated:

"Here I may mention a remarkable circumstance, that the Jews of the East to this day often have red hair and blue eyes, with a nose of delicate form and nearly straight, and are quite unlike their brethren of Europe; and the children in modern Jerusalem have the pink and white complexions of Europeans."

Finally, this comment comes from an 1847 work titled "The Physical History of Mankind" by James Cowles Prichard.

"Mr. Earle has sent me two specimens of the hair of Arafuras. One is red lank hair, like that of a fair European. The red hair is from the head of a girl ten or eleven years of age. Nearly all the inhabitants of the same village near the north-eastern extremity of Timor, in which she dwells, had hair of the same colour, and their complexion is much fairer than that of the other inhabitants of the Archipelago, while many were speckled. The other specimen is from the head of a New Guinea Arafura, who was a complete Papua."

And so ends our sojourn into the world of the 19th century ethnologist.

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