Chosen by Sofia, a Tracing Our Tales graduate

About the object

Shaving or close cropping children’s hair, as seen in this photograph, was a practice which began at the Foundling Hospital in the eighteenth century to address the problem of head lice. On the 1 May 1779 a note was made in the Governors’ Committee minutes that a weekly bill was being presented by Luke Knowler ‘for shaving the children’s heads’.  Luke was described as ‘a boy of this Hospital apprentice to the apothecary’. In the time before antibiotics children could end up with serious skin infections from scratching, but shaving was likely to be an effective way to remove the problem.

The photograph shows that children’s hair at the Hospital was still being cut very short in the early twentieth century, probably for the same reason. It was done on the children’s arrival from their foster homes to prevent any head lice being spread amongst all the children. There was some variety in how the girls wore their hair afterwards, with some older girls appearing in photographs with long hair. In the 1930s and 1940s girls wore their hair in the ‘bobbed’ style popular at that time.  It was around this time that insecticides first started to be used as treatments against body and head lice.

Girls at the Foundling Hospital, London, early twentieth century, photograph, courtesy Coram