James Wood’s wig a ‘holy grail’ for historians

Wigmakers present barrister’s wig to Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

By Ryan Cornell

WINCHESTER — The barrister’s wig worn by James Wood, Frederick County’s first court clerk who is also credited with founding Winchester, now has a home at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

A panel of Colonial Williamsburg wigmakers presented the wig to the museum on Saturday and shared the process most likely used to create it.

Although colonial wigs were primarily crafted out of horsehair from China, master wigmaker Betty Myers said a small amount of human hair was planted at the nape of the neck to minimize scratching. She said the two tails extending from the back of the wig mark its wearer as a barrister, or a lawyer.

“Typically, barristers didn’t want the wigs cleaned,” she said. “That wig is going to look dark and dirty because that means he’s a veteran. A young buck’s is going to be white and clean.”

The authentic 18th-century wig worn by Wood – who was the father of Revolutionary War colonel James Wood Jr., who is the eponym for a Winchester high school and middle school — was discovered in a box at the museum’s Glen Burnie House in 2009 and has been researched by Colonial Williamsburg wigmakers since then, until returning it to the museum recently with a reproduction of the wig.

Debbie Turpin, who spent the past three years working on the reproduction, said the original wig was created in England using a honeycomb weave and would’ve cost about 1 pound and 5 shillings during that time.

“One good case and he could probably afford the wig,” she said.

Tim Jacoby, who volunteers in Colonial Williamsburg as a costumed interpreter, knows firsthand what it feels like to wear these wigs.

“They’re uncomfortable,” he said. “They get hot because the base is either cotton or silk. If you are a man of means, you can have a wig for the summer months or you can wear a negligee cap.”

He said the average price of a wig in the mid-1770s cost about 3 pounds and 2 shillings, which translated to a month’s wages for the average worker. For that price, someone could purchase a half-acre of land in Williamsburg or a pair of oxen, he said.

Myers said the Wood wig is only the second wig they’ve been able to document in the U.S. from that time period.

“To find an original that we can nearly 100 percent authenticate to the 18th century is phenomenal,” she said. “It’s actually our holy grail.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com