The powdering room was a room in which wigs would be powdered. During the 1700s and early 1800s both men and women wore wigs. Wigs became popular for men in the mid-1600s in England and France. According to certain traditions, King Louis XIII started the craze for wearing wigs because he was starting to go bald. He apparently did not want to see himself, or anyone else, for that matter, with a bald head, so all his courtiers began wearing wigs whether they needed to or not. Poor and wealthy men alike took to wearing wigs. Fathers would start their sons with wigs around the age of seven years. Women also were excited by the craze for wearing wigs, because it allowed them to avoid having to fix and worry with their own hair. Most men and boys would have their heads completely shaved in order to have the wigs fit snugly. And even some women took to shaving their heads to better accommodate their wigs. It might be noted that in the evening, when the men came home from their work, they would remove their wigs, but few wanted to be seen with their heads shaved, so the custom of wearing a nightcap came into vogue. Women who wore wigs all the time, and therefore had their heads shaved, would don what was called a ‘mob cap’ at night.
The wigs had to be maintained, and that is where the powdering came in. Wigs were constructed of a cloth cap, onto which actual human hair would be sewn. These tended to be expensive, and as the craze for wearing wigs flourished, cheaper ones were constructed of horsehair, cows’ tail hair, and even linen and silk threads. Regardless of what material was used in its construction, as the wig was worn, the sweat and oils from the wearer’s head tended to soak into the wig’s material. From time to time, a wig had to be ‘dressed’ or cleaned of the oils. The wig would be washed in water and the locks would be curled around clay pipe rollers. Then the wig would be placed in an oven to be heated and dried. The cleaning process took quite a while, and so in order to shorten the time that was needed to dress the wig, it would be powdered. It was discovered that a talcum powder would soak up the oils in a wig in an instant. A wig had to be powdered while it was being worn, otherwise the action of putting it on the head would knock all the powder off. The wearer would take a seat in the Powder Room, and don a cloth sheet over his or her clothes, and then place his or her face in a paper cone to avoid breathing the powder. Another family member or servant would fill a small cloth bag with crushed talc (i.e . talcum powder) and shake it vigorously above the wearer’s head. The talcum powder would therefore be made to cover the wig without its style being affected. The majority of the talcum powder would, of course, stick to the wig’s hair, especially if it was a bit oily and greasy.
Although no one wears powdered wigs anymore, the name powder room has remained in our vocabulary. It now generally refers to a small room in which cosmetics are applied and where women ‘powder’ their faces with makeup. The small powder room usually serves double duty as a bathroom without a shower or bathtub.
In the diagram below, the powdering room is indicated in red.