Hair Receivers,
Secret Beauty Aids of the Past

By Mike McLeod

Although rare today, the hair receiver was a common fixture on the dressing tables of women from Victorian times to the early decades of the 20th century. Its purpose was to save hair culled from the hairbrush and comb, which were used vigorously on a daily basis. The hair could then be stuffed into pincushions or pillows. Since hair was not washed as often as it is today, oils were frequently used to add scent and shine to hair. The residual oil made the hair an ideal stuffing for pincushions because it lubricated the pins, making it easier for them to pierce material. Small pillows could be stuffed with hair, which was less prickly than pinfeathers.

But possibly most important, hair receivers made the creation of ratts possible. A ratt (sometimes spelled rat) is a small ball of hair that was inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. The ratt was made by stuffing a sheer hairnet until it was about the size of a potato and then sewing it shut.

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A favored hairstyle during Victorian times parted the hair in the center and pulled it to the sides. In photos from that era, it is easy to spot the women with flat hair who were not using ratts and those with "big hair" who were. One reason for favoring this hairstyle was it revealed as much of the face as possible. In Renaissance times, a wide and high forehead was a sign of virtue. This is why paintings from that era often portray women with just a little hair showing around the face and a big, wide forehead. Since Victorian women only used a little face powder and no other make-up lest she be scandalized as a "painted lady," much effort was invested in hairstyles and clothing to maximize beauty.

Another reason for their desire to display as much of the head as possible was that the Victorians were swept up in the new, so-called "science" of phrenology. This craze postulated that a person's qualities and characteristics, both good and bad, could be determined by the contours of one's head. Or as some people have called it, by "reading the bumps on your head." This curious infatuation of the Victorians is discussed below.

The Victorians were extremely concerned with their appearances, and a woman's hair was considered her crowning glory. In 1894, an article in The Delineator magazine stated, "The often-admired 'crowning glory' may be rendered almost a disfigurement if disposed unbecomingly, while a tasteful and careful dressing of the tresses, even though they are not very beautiful, will lend a decided charm to a plain face."

Usually identified by the hole in the lid for inserting hair, hair receivers graced the dressing tables of women from Victorian times to the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of and from the personal collection of Elza Brokaw.)

The use of wigs was common at this time, for women and men (judges, magistrates, and even soldiers wore wigs into battle). However, these were usually made from someone else's hair. A woman could use a ratt to create a beautiful hairstyle and truthfully answer that this was her own hair.

The widespread use of "extra hair" is evidenced by this instruction from Godey's Lady's Book: "When a lady is in danger of drowning, raise her by the dress and not by the hair, which oftentimes remains in the grasp."

A hair receiver can be identified by a finger-wide hole in the lid, through which hair is poked. They can be round or square in shape, and some are footed. Made of a variety of materials, including glass and in later times celluloid, some of the prettiest examples are of porcelain. RS Prussia manufactured beautiful hair receivers, and one with delicate floral prints sold recently on eBay for $152. However, you will usually see the finer antique hair receivers hovering in the $100 range, while most are well below that amount.

It is uncertain if Japanese women also collected their spare hair for adornment, but Japanese potters certainly created hair receivers. You can find Nippon, Kutani and Sumida hair receivers.

While some say that hair saved in receivers was also used for hair jewelry, love tokens, and mourning mementos, Lori Verge, curator of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, states those items required straight, not tangled hair. She believes that women used cut hair (rather than combed out hair) for those purposes. Ms. Verge also reports that her grandmother used a hair receiver as late as the 1950s.

Frantic about Phrenology
The underlying premise of phrenology was that individual characteristics or qualities resided in specific areas of the brain. The strong traits in a person would cause specific areas of the brain to be larger than others, and the shape of the skull would be altered, thus causing mounds or bumps.

A trained phrenologist supposedly could define your character by rubbing his hands over your head to find those indicative bumps. Among the Victorians, this was viewed as a predictor of your future, like palm reading. One old photo from the day showed a phrenologist set up on a sidewalk in front of a store with a client sitting in a barber-style chair, ready to have his head read.

For a while, phrenology was taken very seriously. Employers could require a potential employee to get a reading from a phrenologist to verify honesty, diligence and a willingness to work hard. Phrenologists also acted as matchmakers and career counselors. Experts in the fields of education and criminology consulted phrenologists.

Phrenologists used models of the head or drawings to help them determine where to find specific qualities. You can still happen upon these models of diagrammed head in antiques shops from time to time. Some of the Phrenological Areas of the Brain included: language, parental love, fidelity, musical talent, valor, arithmetic, murder, mechanical skill, cunning, larceny, pride, arrogance, wit, ambition and vanity, poetic ability, compassion, belief in God and religion, memory, and perseverance.

While we may find amusement in this, some of the principles of phrenology have been proven correct. It has been proven that certain areas of the brain do control specific functions. We know this because people lose specific abilities (speech, muscle control, etc.) after a stroke. In addition, parts of the brain that are used more often do become larger. And no one gives a second thought when someone says they are "left-brained" or "right-brained."

Although phrenology might be considered an early pioneering effort in the field of neurology, its diagram of characteristics was severely flawed. In fact, all of the qualities it assigned to specific areas of the brain were wrong, except one. And that one was reassigned in later diagrams to the wrong area.

Despite efforts by the leaders of this movement, phrenology never attained the status of an official science, and it has all but disappeared into the mists of time.

However, hair receivers can still be found today and are still quite collectable. When you are treasure hunting, keep an eye out for these quaint curiosities of a by-gone age.


Does she or doesn't she...
use hair ratts? (All photos from
the personal collection of
Marna Jean and Doug Davis,

Because little or no make-up was used, hairstyles (and "big hair") became extremely important.

This R.S. Prussia hair receiver
sold on eBay for $152.

hairrec1.gif (15217 bytes)

An 1848 phrenology chart
identifying trait in the brain.

Handbill advertising phrenology,
the "science" of reading the
bumps on the head.



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