A war against vermin by Jen Cruise

This object may be unfamiliar to most people – it is a head scratcher or scratching stick (gratoir) and typical examples are shown in the accompanying pictures. I have known about their existence for a long time and occasionally seen them for sale, always expensive. They are referred to in my book (see page 25) but it was only fairly recently did I have the opportunity to buy one at an affordable price.

A headscratcher, rather like a backscratcher but on a smaller scale, is formed of a hand attached to a long rod, as much as 12 inches (30 cm) in length. Although crude versions were made as simple rods with pointed ends, elegant examples terminated in an ivory or bone hand (sometimes silver or gold), usually with the fingers slightly bent in a claw-like fashion. The long rod or handle was made of ivory, wood, bone or, as in my example, extruded horn.
(Figs 1-4)

These useful implements were in vogue at the time of the hugely elaborate and often bizarre hairstyles of the later 18th century, created in the name of fashion and kept in place for weeks or even months at a time. (Fig 5). Not surprisingly, the scalp became hot and itchy and a ready home for such vermin as lice and, apocryphally perhaps, tiny mice, in which case some women even resorted to wearing wire nets as a protection!

Nits and lice were quite a problem within such huge hairstyles built up with the natural hair whereas those who wore such creations in the form of wigs would remove them at night, thus presumably keeping any invasive pests under control.

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Jen Cruse© September 2014

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