Sunday, September 25, 2011

Human Hair Harvest in Brittany Normandy

By Charles Geniaux.

The traffic in artificial hair is a big business. It is interesting in itself, and quite a readable article might be prepared as the result of an inter­view with an extensive dealer in human hair in London or any other great capital. This information, however, is accessible to any journalist who cares to go and get it, and beyond bare mention it forms no part of this paper, which deals rather with the very fountain­head (the joke is not intentional) of this curious industry.

I visited one of the great Paris coiffeurs, and he made the startling statement that "when they reach a certain age - say, forty or fifty years, ­almost all the ladies in Paris use artificial hair, particularly those who wear their hair in twists, or who affect the archaic style. Why," he said, " do you know the price of a single kilogram (over 2lb.) of first class hair - hair that has been sorted, cleaned, and prepared? Well, sir, I do not sell it under a thousand or eighteen hundred francs, according to color, texture, and general beauty.

"And," he continued, "thanks to the life of high pressure which we lead in these modern days, the demand is becoming greater and greater."

With these interesting statements still ringing in my ears, I left the coiffeur and resolved to find out for myself the origin of those mountains of human hair used by the wigmakers of Paris.

Luck was soon to satisfy my curiosity, for not long afterwards, in the course of a journey through Brittany, my attention was arrested by certain conversations on the subject of a sale of hair. I was told that the peasant women roundabout had their hair cut off periodically and sold to the merchants who went shearing from village to village. I made inquiries without losing a moment, and soon found out that one of the most important of these markets was about to be held in the month of June at the Fair of St. Fiacre. I felt overjoyed, and expressed to my informant my intention of taking photos. of every phase of this strangest of markets.

My friend looked amused. "You had better take care what you are about," he said, warn­ingly, "for both the merchants and their customers are perfect savages, jealously guarding the secret of their queer traffic." But a still more startling statement was to come. "They have already fallen upon one of your artistic colleagues and completely smashed his camera." I felt surprised, and said so. "Tell me all about it," I said.

"Oh! it was at St. Jean Trolimon, in the peninsula of Penmarch. M. G. Roluchon, who is the author of many well known works, renowned throughout France, was desirous of photographing a similar scene. Well, one morning he arrived at the fair, alone on a tricycle. Dismounting close to the Calvary at Tronoen, he commenced his preparations by establishing his dark room. He was congratu­lating himself upon the prospect of obtaining excellent and striking photographs, when suddenly the girls and lads fell upon him with sticks, gave him a tremendous drubbing, and smashed his apparatus all. to bits. There appeared, however, to be something more in this than mere aversion to the camera, for M. Roluchon discovered that he had been robbed, when he made his escape bruised and breath­less."

Of course, this account did not sound very encouraging; but, on consideration, I found that the spice of danger made the venture still more attractive. I made up my mind that I would run away, however, in the event of my being attacked, as my friends would never forget it if they learnt that I had been engaged in a ridiculous scuffle with a lot of women.

Well, anyway, this particular day finds me blithely climbing the hill on whose summit is held the famous Fair of St. Fiacre, which is attended by practically the whole agricultural population of the Morbihan.

In the centre of a large plateau is a round chapel. A few walls, some courtyards, two or three farms, and a little timber on the limit of the far-reaching horizon. Such is the battlefield on which the agricultural interests of the entire Department array themselves. Also, young men come from far and near to this fair to offer their services and hire themselves as laborers to the farmers. They look picturesque enough, these fellows, as they flock in together, holding in their hands long peeled twigs. As soon as a farmer has hired one of them, the young man breaks his willow stick as a sign of the engage­ment, and from that moment he enters the service of his new patron.

But do you know what the maidens, and even the old women, are doing in the meantime? Why, they are busy exchanging their hair for articles of clothing and miscellaneous sundries dear to the feminine heart! I must now set down accurately and in detail all I saw and heard during my undoubtedly perilous mission. Talk about a sheep shearing station in Australia! Why, it is nothing to what I saw. First of all, however, a word of explanation is necessary.

In England, this extraordinary traffic would be almost impossible; and, in consequence, very little human hair is exported into Paris from Great Britain. But, on the other hand, picturesque Brittany furnishes almost one-fourth of the entire consumption in the capital. Now, why is this? Well, it is mainly because the Breton women wear as head-covering a close­fitting linen cap, which entirely hides the hair with the exception of two flat bands which pass over the forehead and down to the ears. Now suppose for a moment that these Breton caps were replaced by ordinary hats or bonnets. Well, if this innovation took place, the traffic in human hair would simply become an impossibility, as the deficiency in hair would be apparent to every passer-by. Thanks also to the prevalence of the cap, the Auvergne and some districts of Normandy likewise furnish a considerable supply of human hair.

The peasant women seem to have reasoned the matter out something in this way: "As our large heads of hair are not seen, and as they have a certain commercial value, why should we over weight our brains with them, especially when honest merchants come along to buy our hair on such advantageous terms?" And, goodness knows, cash is scarce enough among the Breton peasants.

It is no wonder, then, that the travelling hair­ shearers and merchants put up at St. Fiacre, attracted as they are by the certainty of being able to shear practically the whole population of women and reap a very fine harvest of human hair.

I may remark, before going any further, that the merchants are not nice persons, or polite; and their language, as a rule, is abominable. Probably by way of violent contrast to the city hair dresser, who affects distinguished manners and curls his moustache with tongs, the hair­cutters I saw were unshaven and slovenly in their dress. They have adopted as costume the ugly blouse of Normandy, which exhibits an increasing tendency to invade the rural districts of France, and makes it impossible even to guess at the birthplace of the wearer. As head-gear, the merchant usually wears a wide brimmed felt hat, whilst a few of them wear straw boat-shaped ones. I felt rather curious to know the former occupations of these gentry, for, from the way in which they went about their business, I gathered that they were not born hair cutters. One man I questioned, however, flew into a furi­ous rage, and as the English col­loquialism has it, nearly "flew down my throat." The second was a gentler person. He confessed that he was a potato merchant during the winter. Rather prosaic, wasn't it?

At length I was fortunate enough to be well received by the best known of them all, a compara­tively intelligent man, without whose assist­ance it would have been impossible for me to obtain the snap-shots reproduced in this article. Whilst actually writing these lines I have open before me my notebook with this entry, in the hand of my friend,. the chief hair-shearer:­

Without any appearance of conceit he said to me: "I am a kind of celebrity in my own line. Mon Dieu!" he went on, excitedly. "How many heads of hair have I shorn? Perhaps a hundred thousand or more!"

He was rather a comic person. "Since my childhood," he went on, moved almost to tears, "I have been at work - snipping, snipping, cutting, shaving," and he accompanied each word with an appropriate gesture. "My father was a village barber­ - yes, an ordinary barber! He was one of that kind who just clapped a wooden bowl over the skull of a peasant, and cut off all that hung below it. When I joined the regiment - the in­evitable regiment-I was entrusted with the shav­ing of the heads of the conscripts, and after ob­taining the rank of master hairdresser, I returned to civil life, as you find me. "Up to that hour I had cut off much hair, but wasted it all. Ah! what a pity! But suddenly one day a great light broke in upon me. I conceived the idea of. selling the hair I acquired; and this started my career as a peripatetic hair - shearer. Ciel! But it was a great idea!"

I have said above that my new friend started without conceit; but as he related the moving story of his career, he appeared to swell with pride, and he wound up his recital with the swagger of a successful general.

Monsieur was accompanied by his wife; and in truth Madame Gerard was extremely useful to him in his extraordinary business. By the way, I noticed that all the shearers likewise had their wives with them. It became evident to me later that they mistrusted themselves, feeling certain that alone they would not be clever enough to deceive the country lasses to the shameful extent usually practiced.

My first photo. represents the act of bargain­ing, or haggling. In the large courtyard of the farm you see vehicles crowded against the wall, the horses reversed in the shafts eating hay off the front seat of the cart. Right in front, on a low wall, Madame Gerard has arranged remnants of lurid stuffs, shawls, kerchiefs, and an infinite variety of odds and ends - quite as attractive to ladies as the ones at the end of this number. Madame holds between her fingers a print, which she is handling with studied care­lessness for the benefit of an old woman with white hair, who is simply burning to exchange her hair for the gaudy stuff, as it would make her such a fine apron. It is a grand comedy, this. They talk, those two, they discuss, they haggle. Presently a group of farmers' wives standing by join in the animated debate. In a corner at the left of the photo. a young girl, bareheaded, is awaiting a favorable moment to come forward in her turn. I must beg my readers to examine closely the caps of the women in my snap-shots. You will notice the two bands of hair underneath the white linen on the forehead, but all the rest is so scrupulously hidden that he must be remark­ably clever who could tell a woman with her hair on from one who has just been shorn by the merchants.

In my second photo, the dealer's wife is callously grasping in both hands the dark tresses of a peasant woman. The latter, however, is quite willing to offer her superb hair in exchange for that piece of cloth, which her eager hands will not let go. A right royal array of woolen and cotton stuffs is set out upon the wall one above the other, and their white tickets, osten­tatiously bearing preposterous prices, are well displayed. I would specially draw the attention of WIDE WORLD readers to this trick of the dealers. The utility of the price ticket is indeed obvious. A shawl worth, perhaps, a franc or two, impresses the peasant vastly if it be marked 25fr., and the trick costs nothing save cardboard and ink. The result is, that in giving up to the women a few yards of stuff, a couple of ker­chiefs, or what not, the rascals appear to be paying royally for their victims' hair. Nay, I have seen even worse things than this, for some of the victims were actually forced to pay a cash surplus over and above their hair, in order to obtain what they coveted - a still more gaudy shawl, or else some English cloth, which is in high favor with the poor peasants of Brittany. The following is a specimen of the dialogue I heard :­

"I should like that red shawl, madame."

"Well, show me your hair," answers the female bargainer, "and we will see what we can do. Yes, indeed, we will see what we can do."

The old woman forthwith takes off her cap and lets down her hair, spread­ing it out and displaying her extraordinary wares to the best possible advantage before the cold eye of the purchaser.

The latter seizes it (rather brutally, I thought), feels it, weighs it in her hand, and then pulls it to judge of its strength. Then, as a matter of course, she depreciates it, finding fault with its color, texture, coarseness, etc.

"Heavens! it is worth nothing. It is too short," and so on, and so on.

Finally Madame Gerard declares she doesn't care for the hair at all. More bargaining. Then madame (it is a beautiful, if fantastic, comedy) appears to relent somewhat, and at last she cries, indifferently: "Well, give me forty sous and your hair, and you shall have the shawl."

"You're joking," exclaims the woman, piti­fully. "No, I'm not, indeed," is the reply. "I'm perfectly serious. And even then I shall lose by it - on my honor."

And so the cunning dealer manages to get out of the silly woman the entire commercial value of the shawl, thus obtaining her beautiful hair for nothing - hair which brings in at least fifty francs per kilogram to the rascally merchant. Moreover, later on, when sorted and "manufactured," it is worth thirty times that sum.

When the bargain has been struck, M. Gerard himself appears upon the scene, bustling and cheerful, well knowing that his flinty hearted spouse has arranged the more unpleasant part of the business.

"Sit down on this chair, my good woman," he says, with ludicrous benignance, "and let us cut off your terrific shock of hair. I am quite sure it is too heating for your head."

Then the good man proceeds to work up quite a pretty indignation. He gently chides the woman, and perhaps ends up by saying, "Are you not indeed ashamed to let it grow so long?"

My third photo. shows Gerard actually at work, with a large pair of scissors. He cuts so closely that the scalp shows white on one side of the poor victim's head. As the scissors snip away he throws the hair at intervals on to a large handkerchief or white cloth which is laid upon the ground. Also, he leaves a deceptive fringe all round the victim's head, which he is careful not to shear off. At this stage the patient looks like nothing so much as a Capuchin monk, the head being one huge tonsure. The illustrations will instruct my readers in the primitive methods of M. Gerard and his colleagues. They cut off with a few snips of the scissors even the most troublesome shocks of hair. I saw Gerard myself take hold of a strand of hair in his left band and tug at it violently, half tearing it out by the roots and breaking it. The whole scene is a marvelous object lesson in what women will endure for the sake of personal finery - finery which they cannot afford to purchase in the ordinary way.

In order to insure the success of these snap­-shots, my friend the dealer bad lured two ill favored old hags out into the sunlight. Sitting dumbly on her chair, with head dropping forward, the peasant woman submitted quite readily to have her hair positively torn out piecemeal.

A fairly rich farmer's wife is seen in the above snap-shot; and from motives of hygiene, as well as avarice, she has offered her head to the scissors of the shearer. On the right of the photo. you will notice an old woman holding in her band the untied cap of her mistress, while the latter is being shorn. Here again, then, we get another curious glimpse of the indus­try, and we see that all the country women do not act in this way solely for money, but actually seek relief from the weight of their superb heads of hair.

I consider it neces­sary to give the accom­panying photo, if only for my own credit, and in order to give you some idea of the difficulties which beset me in the fulfillment of my perilous task. First of all, notice the two walls, the farther of which is close upon 14ft. high. I had tried to penetrate into the yard where the hair-cutters were plying their scissors, but the moment the women set eyes upon me I was shrilly insulted and hustled out.

I made up my mind, however, that I would not be beaten. I am young. and agile, and so resolved that I would run round the outer enclosure, scale the high wall, and from this point of vantage take snap-shots of the inter­esting scene within. But, alas! I had not reckoned on the pebbles and large stones with which I was bombarded, and all because the girls got angry at the sight of my all ­recording camera. Indeed, without good old Gerard's assistance I might have come away positively injured. Certainly I should not have obtained a single snap-shot. But the worthy dealer helped me down from my perilous perch, and I took the photos. scat­tered throughout this article as best I could.

I do not know the weird vocabulary of Breton insults, but the mother of the little girl seen in photos. Nos. 6 and 7 made my ears positively ring with her furious howls. First of all, she hid her children in her skirts. Then I pretended to go, but sud­denly turning round, I secured a snap-shot of the little girl with her cap off, and her pretty, fair hair tossed over her shoulders (N o. 6). The poor little thing was crying. Probably some instinct had warned her of the barbarity of this custom. Her mother, however, was eager for gain, and well knew that children's locks, more especially when golden, are worth most of all. And so she bartered the child's hair for a piece of cloth. The two little maidens of five and six were very tiny, but, all the same, they were dressed like grown­up people, and had to submit to the common fate. Notice on the right the unintelligent faces of the peasants. So long as the country folk remain in their present condition of ignorance, this strange traffic will continue.

In the photo shown below the mother is covering the scalp of her shorn little one with a resille, or coarse net, while the child herself looks very disconso­late. Until they have made their first Communion, the little girls of Brittany all enclose their hair in nets.

One of Gerard's rivals is depicted in the next photo. . He has set up a sort of tent on poles, and in its discreet shade he sets out his bait; or perhaps it would be more correct to speak of his merchandise - shawls, fichus, kerchiefs, and a number of other things. When an unfortunate victim, excited - by covetousness, falls into his hands, she does not emerge until she has been shaved to the scalp. One woman I saw with my own eyes receiving as the price of her hair a kerchief hardly worth seven sous ­to say nothing about the insults which the dealer heaped upon her concerning her hair.

At about three o'clock in the after­noon the scene was at its strangest. At least a hundred women of all ages, with many children, beset and surrounded the busy dealers. Nearly all were bare­headed, with their hair flying all over the place. On the ground was a pitiful heap of hair of all colors - black, white, brown, and golden, in an infinite variety of shades. One woman confessed to me that she came back every two or three years to sell her hair, which grew again very quickly; and I could not help comparing this interesting peasant to a sheep being periodically shorn.

Some days later, as I was, passing through Vannes, my attention was suddenly attracted by a man mounted on a ladder. He was fixing over a door the most curious looking sign I have ever seen. It consisted of a long pole, with an enormous shawl of gaudy pattern fastened to it. The design of blazing red and yellow com­pelled attention, no matter what one's business was. But what attracted me most and aroused my curiosity was the long tress of hair which was fastened to one corner of the shawl. But my last photo. will explain this novel advertisement better than any description. I made my way along a tortuous passage, and reached a yard where some girls were apparently offering their hair for sale. I tried to take some photos., but decided instead to beat a hasty retreat. For the women shrieked shrilly at the sight of my camera, and threatened me with personal violence. Yes, I had had enough of the hair harvest.

Originally published in The Wide World Magazine.  February 1900.

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