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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Big Damn History: The Rosensterns

Wigs. Some bald guys wear them. Some weird lawyers in England do too. How did they come to be? Nobody can really trace the history of wigs (OK. Somebody probably can and has but we didn't feel like googling it) but we do know about the history of the most prominent wigmaking family in history: The Rosensterns.

Samuel Rosenstern was the first notable wigmaker of his line. While other wigmakers were using horse-hair, wool, or even buffalo hair, Samuel Rosenstern was the first to use real human hair in his wigs. His work was so good that his first major client was Herod the Great (who wasn't really all that great, according to Samuel's diary). Late in his life and career he made wigs for Nero. According to Samuel's diary, Nero was even more of a dick than you would think.

The next notable member of the Rosenstern clan was Abram Rosenstern. Abram's most illustrious client was Elizabeth I. While she is wildly known for her red wigs, what is less well known was the masterpiece Abram created at her behest: The merkin.

Abram created this unique wig style for Elizabeth I who was quite odd when it came to her vaginal accoutrements. While she enjoyed being freshly shorn, she also wanted lively colors for each and every day. Abram created fourteen merkins of various colors and lengths for Elizabeth, in the course of doing so he created the color chartreuse. True story.

The 18th century was a boon for the wigmaking business. Harold Rosenstern was making powdered wigs for all of the really famous and hip people of the time. By this time, having "a Rosenstern" was the equivalent of having a "Stradivarius" for violinists. Harold was invitied to the swankiest parties and hobnobbed with the rich, famous, and even the infamous.

In his business, Harold created wigs for George Washington, King George III, and Thomas Jefferson. In his personal life, Harold found himself cavorting with one one newspaper reporter of the time termed "the dregs of society". Harold had discovered cocaine.

Driven by long drug fueled hours at the wig loom, Harold created fascinating (but virtually impossible to wear) wigs that were more style than substance. After being removed from yet another museum after haranguing the curator to give him a one man exhibit, Harold bumped into Maude.

Maude helped Harold settle down and soon he was off the coke and they were working on making a family and a stable home. Unfortunately for the Rosenstern line, Harold was the first of his family not to have a son. When his daughter, Joan, married a young Robert Guildencrantz, Rosenstern taught Guildencrantz the trade and the new wing of the family continued doing business under the more famous Rosenstern name.

As the 20th century dawned, wigmaking hit the skids as less people wore wigs. In 1912, John Havermeyer's pioneering work with "the combover" was sweeping the bald nation and by the time of the roaring twenties, more and more men simply wore hats. In light of these events, in 1962, the Rosenstern wigshop on Saville Row in London closed. A week later Michael Guildencrantz reopened as a haberdashery.

Michael made fashionable and expensive hats for all the hipsters of the time. Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and even Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, as the sixties gave way to the seventies people gave up wearing hats. The Rosenstern/Guildencrantz family faded into obscurity and the art of both wigmaking and haberdashery has never been the same.

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