Black Hairstyles of the 1800s

by Bonnie Ross Coleman

Black hairstyles have often shaped trends, such as Afros, intricate braids and even hair weaves. Trends in black hair did not start until slavery was abolished in 1865. Before that time, African hair symbolized tribal customs and traditional cultures. Black hair in the 1800s went through dramatic changes from African cultural pride to assimilation into Caucasian culture.

History of African Hair Culture

Black hairstyles in the 1800s were based on customs and tradition, symbolizing tribal affiliations. When Africans were bought to America in the slave trade they had to find functional ways to wear their naturally curly hair in order to work. Twists, cornrows and braids were a way African women could still respect their cultural heritage. Since each African tribe wore hair in different patterns to identify their culture, it was common to see slave women of similar tribes and regions wearing their hair the same way throughout the South.

African Hair in the Mid-1800s

African women did not have combs and brushes, so they used bacon fat, grease and even kerosene to clean and condition their hair. They brought that tradition with them into slavery, but soon discovered that lighter-skinned African women with straighter hair were worth more money and often worked in a slave-owner's home instead of in the field. Slave owners often made these more valuable women wear their hair certain ways, which promoted the idea that darker-skinned women with kinky hair were not as valued.

Post-Slavery Black Hairstyles

During slavery times, many slave owners tried to prevent African tribal loyalties, making women abandon their cultural hairstyles. After slavery was abolished, Caucasians still looked on black women who wore their hair in styles that approximated the white culture as more well-adjusted. This led to the belief that straight hair was good hair, and tightly curled hair was bad -- a perception that still exists to some extent today. "Good" hair became a defining status symbol for entry into certain social organizations, churches, schools and business networks.

Straightened Hair

In the 1880s, the influence from France of straightening hair with a hot metal comb was embraced by African American women. The straightening comb meant that women could achieve a style of hair that resembled Caucasian styles. The metal comb was heated over fire and pulled through the hair to straighten out tight curls. It was not until the early 1900s that Madam C.J. Walker revolutionized black hair with her press and curl products. She is often considered the first African American millionaire.

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images

About the Author

Bonnie Ross Coleman has been writing professionally since 2000. She has written fitness articles in "The Delaware Women's Journal," as well as a series on business plans for the National Black Guide. A Wharton School of Business graduate, Coleman has more than 20 years of experience writing proposals, marketing materials and bid documents in the corporate sector.