Crowning glory or mark of the devil?

Crowning glory or mark of the devil?

Denise Bates explores the history of people’s attitudes towards red hair

Denise Bates, historian, researcher and writer

Denise Bates

historian, researcher and writer


With a palette that ranges from strawberry blonde to deep auburn, red is the rarest of the naturally occurring colours of hair. Less than 2% of the world’s population have this characteristic and the majority of them have European ancestry. The distribution is not uniform across the continent. An eighth of Scots are born redheads and red hair is relatively common in Ireland and parts of Scandinavia, but it is not often found in Mediterranean regions.

For centuries, redheads were viewed in a negative manner, and regarded as a legitimate target for disparaging comments about their unusual hair colour. This may have been more pronounced in places where the colour was rare. An individual whose hair was a definite red probably faced more prejudice than someone whose blond or brown locks had a reddish hue.

Portraits of the Virgin Queen demonstrate that she was fully aware of the propaganda value of a regal appearance
Portraits of the Virgin Queen demonstrate that she was fully aware of the propaganda value of a regal appearance

Modern scientific studies have identified that red hair is the result of inheriting a particular gene sequence from both parents. As ancient royalty and nobility frequently had ancestors in common with those of their spouse, this would account for the disproportionate number of red-haired monarchs, including English rulers from the Norman Conquest through to Queen Elizabeth I. In times when a successful king or queen needed a forceful character to deal with potential rivals and keep competing factions under control, the distinctive flaming locks of a powerful ruler would have sent out a strong aura of personal authority, and become associated with potentially negative character traits, such as bad temper or ruthlessness.

Both characters in this painting about a fallen woman, The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt, have red hair
Both characters in this painting about a fallen woman, The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt, have red hair

The devil’s servants?
A widespread dislike of red hair existed in medieval times throughout Europe and passed orally from one generation to the next as folklore. Religion played a part as linkage of fire, red and the devil seems to have occurred in many places and in superstitious times it was easy to fear that people with red hair were the devil’s servants. As Christianity gradually replaced pagan forms of worship, Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was reputed to have had red hair. Although there is no biblical authority for this, from the Renaissance onwards several artists painted him in this manner. It was an effective artistic device to distinguish a key participant in a group scene, but would have reinforced the belief. In Britain, oral tales of Viking conquest probably described the marauders as fearsome red-haired warriors.

From the middle of the 18th century, newspaper advertising reveals that men and women were prepared to pay significant sums to try to disguise their red or grey hair. Grecian Water and Italian Hair Water were just two of the potions which claimed to change the colour of red hair to brown. A copy of the Scots Magazine in 1770 contained a DIY concoction which involved boiling equal amounts of black lead and ebony shavings for an hour and combing the resultant liquid thoroughly through the tresses.

A Roman fresco of a woman with red hair, garlanded with olives
A Roman fresco of a woman with red hair, garlanded with olives

By the end of the century, commercial products appear to have been in short supply. This was because the Napoleonic Wars disrupted trade with Europe. Undeterred, British entrepreneurs created new concoctions which were priced at a minimum of 5 shillings (25p) a bottle. For a working man or woman this could have been at least a week’s wages, indicating that remedies for red hair were premium products for the wealthy.

One of the leading products was Atkinson’s vegetable dye, which was supplied discreetly in bottles so that a lady or gentleman could change their hair colour with ease and in secrecy. Some marketing targeted men, stating that the liquid would change the colour of facial hair or would reverse baldness. In the crusade against red, Atkinson’s also produced Ambrosial Soap, which claimed to remove freckles.

As the century progressed, advertisements began to state that the product would change red hair to brown without staining the skin, identifying at least one drawback with some potions. Skin discolouration may have been one of the lesser problems. Manufacturers kept their recipes a secret, but it seems likely that some used ingredients which were poisonous, corrosive or irritant. A few hairdressers claimed to be able to change red hair to fair, which suggests that a strong bleaching agent was involved.

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Morris used a red haired male model, the novelist George Meredith
The Death of Chatterton by Henry Morris used a red haired male model, the novelist George Meredith

Red hair and poverty
The stigma of red hair disproportionately affected the poor. Although newspapers drew attention to the red hair of criminals and missing apprentices, they respectfully described the locks of wealthy, refined or well-connected individuals as titian, venetian or auburn. For impoverished redheads with a sensitive disposition, life would have been difficult. Carrots and Ginger were nicknames bestowed on generations of children, whether they liked the moniker or not. It was sometimes suggested that a man who proposed to a red-haired woman must be colour blind. In a clearly fraudulent breach of promise case in 1861, an elderly farmer with wiry red hair and whiskers was pointed out as the rogue who had jilted a buxom teenager. Everyone in the courtroom burst into hearty laughter, including the judge, and the defendant was ordered to pay her £150 damages. Commercially produced greetings cards wishing misery on a redhead could be found on sale as Valentine’s Day approached. In Scotland and Northern England it was considered unlucky for the first visitor of the new year to have red hair.

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Red haired model Elizabeth Siddall was a talented artist herself
Red haired model Elizabeth Siddall was a talented artist herself

Red hair in art
The art of Victorian Britain also demonstrates the contradiction in the attitude towards red hair. Around the middle of the century, a small group of painters which became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood revolutionised art. Some of their pictures obtained almost instant fame and several included characters with red, orange or copper hair. Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddall and Alexa Wilding, who modelled for these artists, had long, luxuriant tresses and some of the male figures also had red hair and whiskers. In these paintings hair colour was not an artistic motif which denoted negative characteristics because biblical figures, heroes and heroines of medieval legend and industrious workers were redheads, as well as fallen women and libertines. Although few people could afford to buy an original painting, cheap reproductions of some of the pictures were made and sold, reflecting that there was little aversion to a glamorous redhead in a fantasy world.

This 1889 illustration of Charles Dickens’s character Fagin suggests a more negative association with red hair
This 1889 illustration of Charles Dickens’s character Fagin suggests a more negative association with red hair

If art was making red hair more acceptable, negative undercurrents remained. Pseudo-science flourished in the late-Victorian period, as investigators attempted to apply scientific methodologies to topics that were not capable of being analysed in this way. Some researchers tried to correlate red hair with a number of personality traits, often negative ones. A study published in 1903 concluded that people with red hair were very industrious but had a quick temper. One newspaper columnist quoted no evidence supporting the assertion that blue-eyed redheads had an angelic disposition while brown-eyed redheads had a sensuous one. More thoughtful writers pondered why the prejudice against red hair remained so strong. In 1928, a doctor added another strand to the debate when he pointed out that the widespread acceptance of schoolboy pranks against a red-haired classmate might actually be the cause of the quick temper and aggressive self-defence which were seen in some adult redheads.

An early advertisement (1820) for products to treat red hair
An early advertisement (1820) for products to treat red hair

The 20th century
In the early decades of the 20th century attitudes begin to change. In 1909, a French lady living in England founded the Titian Society with membership open to refined and educated girls who would live down the negative reputation of red-haired girls as extravagant, flirtatious, irresponsible, unreliable and bad-tempered. The moving picture industry brought stars with russet locks to prominence, replacing the models of the Pre-Raphaelite era, but for every successful actress, there were women for whom red hair remained a problem. In 1920 it was alleged that the aged owner of a famous London department store dismissed on site any auburn shop worker that he met.

The notion that customers would be offended by red hair was old fashioned by that time. After the First World War, products to enhance red hair began to be advertised alongside those which claimed to disguise it. By 1936, the colour had become so popular that a redhead who sued a salon after a treatment to bleach her hair made it fall out was gently mocked in court for being so far behind The Times as to want to get rid of her fashionable hair colour.

By the end of the 20th century, the wide availability of products which allowed anyone to have red hair would undoubtedly have surprised some redheads from earlier times but the decline of superstition and the recognition that negative traits of character were not linked to hair colour helped to remove the shame from red. No longer was it something to blush over, but, at least for the self-confident, an asset to flaunt.

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