A Passion for Auburn Hair: Victorian Views On Reddish-Brown Tresses

“Her friends call her hair auburn, but her enemies call it red.”

Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet, 1881.

Alice by Henry Tanworth Wells, 1877.

Auburn hair has long been admired for its beauty. In the sixteenth century, Titian famously painted beautiful women with hair of a reddish hue. While in his epic Regency era poem Don Juan, Lord Byron waxed rhapsodic about dancing girls, each having:

Down her white neck long floating auburn curls—
(The least of which would set ten poets raving)

By the Victorian era, the passion for auburn hair had reached a fever pitch.  Inspired by the auburn-haired beauties depicted in the works of Venetian masters, as well as by pre-Raphaelite painters such as John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, ladies sought to supplement their locks with false hair in the desired reddish-brown color. According to a report in the 1865 edition of the Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet:

So great is the rage both in Paris and London for the golden hair which the painters of Venice loved to depict that as much as £5 per ounce is given for human hair of the desired tint!

The Bower Meadow by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1872.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

Unfortunately, when it came to false hair, the demand for shades of auburn far exceeded the supply. As a result, many ladies resorted to dying their tresses auburn by means of natural plant-based or herbal dyes. In his 1879 book The Hair: Its Growth, Care, Diseases and Treatments, Dr. Charles Henri Leonard states that:

A strong infusion of saffron, to which has been added some carbonate of soda, if followed by an application of lemon juice or vinegar, will give a reddish yellow hue to dark-colored hair. 

For a more professional application of hair color, some hairdressers in Paris are reported as having produced a cosmetic preparation which was able to convert “any hair not positively very black” into “the coveted hue.” Of course, such a miracle product did not come cheaply, but as the Enniskillen Chronicle states:

Money is not to be weighed against fashion, and gold freely sacrificed to the shrine of female vanity.

The Picture of Health by John Everett Millais (1829-1896).
(Photo: Martin Beek, Creative Commons licensed)

Young ladies with auburn hair were not only admired for their physical beauty. Auburn hair was also believed to be a great signifier of certain moral qualities and desirable characteristics of temperament. In his 1859 New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology, Orson Squire Fowler asserts that:

Auburn hair, with a florid countenance, indicates the highest order of sentiment and intensity of feeling, along with corresponding purity of character, combined with the highest capacities for enjoyment and suffering.

While Leonard proclaims that “in matters of disposition” ladies with blonde or auburn hair “are usually representatives of delicacy and refinement.” They were also believed to be tender-hearted—a fact which made them likely to be imposed upon by those in “poverty or physical distress.” By contrast, ladies with brown hair were thought to have “combined in themselves” the strong characteristics of those with black hair and the “exquisite sensibilities” of those with fair hair. As Leonard explains:

From this class come our philanthropists (but not our generals, as a rule), our painters, musicians and authors; those that unite the tender feeling and sympathy with the stronger will-force of the man.

Exquisite sensibilities notwithstanding, ladies with an abundance of auburn hair were often prized for their outward beauty above all else. Victorian court cases and newspaper stories abound in which a woman of particular beauty is described as having “magnificent auburn hair.” And, as the Enniskillen Chronicle states:

I need scarcely say that young ladies of whom Nature has already endowed with hair of the genuine color are objects of intense admiration by the sterner sex, and of unbounded jealousy by their less fortunate sisters.

Yes by John Everett Millais, 1877.

The male predilection for auburn hair was manifested not only in artwork of the period, but also in poetry and comic verse. For example, in his 1886 poem “To a Lock of Hair,” John Ackroyd writes of a lock of hair given to him as a memento by an auburn-haired beauty. It reads in part:

I look on thee, dear lock of hair,
And when I look, I think of her,
And breathe to heaven a tender prayer,
For her, the maid with auburn hair.

A less serious verse from “Away! Ye Gay Damsels” by William Seath, published in Rhymes and Lyrics (1897), reads:

Away! Ye gay damsels! w’ a’ your fine beauties,—
Your ribbons and brooches and jewels sae rare;
Your dresses are mock’ry, your beauties are naething,
Compared wi’ the lass wi’ the auburn hair!

Over the course of history every shade of hair color seems to have had its time in the proverbial sun, whether that shade be auburn, platinum blonde, or Rita Hayworth red. Today, I would venture to say that auburn hair is no more prized than black, blonde, red, or brown. Like everything else relating to appearance, hair color is very much a matter of personal preference. For example, in my new Victorian romance novel The Lost Letter, the heroine’s hair is chestnut brown—a shade with glints of red and gold. It’s not quite as striking as a true auburn, but when she gives a lock of it to the hero to take away with him to war, he treasures it as much as if it had been the finest thing on earth.  

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Ackroyd, John. Poems. Thornton: Albert Mitchell, 1886.

Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet (Fermanagh, Northern Ireland), 13 February 1865. © British Library Board.

Byron, George Gordon. Selected Poems of Lord Byron. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1893.

Fowler, Orson Squire New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1859.

Leonard, Charles Henri. The Hair: Its Growth, Care, Diseases and Treatments. Detroit: Illustrated Medical Journal, 1879.

Seath, William. Rhymes and Lyrics: Humorous, Serious, Descriptive and Satirical. St. Helens: Westworth & Sons, 1897.

Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide to Dress and Beauty. London: Ward, Lock, and Co., 1881.

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Jessica
Jessica
3 years ago

It is weird the auburn was admired but ginger wasn’t in my reading

Lydia
Lydia
3 years ago

This post reminded me of how often Anne Shirley complained about her red hair in the Anne of Green Gables series. No wonder she hoped it would darken into auburn! I had no idea that shade of hair was so popular back then.

woostersauce
woostersauce
3 years ago
Reply to  Lydia

Spooky because I thought of Anne of Green Gables while reading this too!

Jeanne Lombardo
Jeanne Lombardo
3 years ago

Another intriguing column. Humorous how the Victorians (a select few hopefully!) could attribute so many moral qualities to such a superficial and completely random thing as hair color. But I agree with the predilection for that particular hue. A natural chestnut brown in my earlier days, I first used henna and later dye to get that color. I told people I was a “natural cinnaberry” after my favorite shade :-)

Renee
Renee
3 years ago

My grandfather is Scots and his mother was always so happy I had auburn hair instead of his flaming carrot-top. I never really thought about why until now. I somehow doubt she’d be so approving of my current blue, purple, and pink tips, however.

Mary
Mary
3 years ago

Never appreciated my red hair as a child. Schoolboys would tease – I’d rather be dead than red on the head! Now it’s turning gray and I miss being red.

wpp
wpp
3 years ago

My wife sent me this link, very interesting. Perhaps I don’t know Auburn color very well, but the missus is a natural redhead as well as 4 of our 7 children, and none of them have the same shade of red to boot.

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