A Hairy History for the Merkin
The merkin. Some of you read that word with a grin on your face because you know EXACTLY what it is. Others not so much. I’m not going to beat around the bush on this. A merkin is a pubic wig. Yes, a wig that one affixes over their junk in place of pubic hair.
The merkin is an historic piece still used today for shy actors and by strippers forced into ‘decency’ by the law. Then there are the fetishers and show stoppers, but I don’t think I need to go there… Though a modern tool, eyewitness accounts place the appearance of merkins around 1450. While there is no historic indication as to why the merkin was invented in the first place, there are two popular modern day theories.
The first theory is the one I support based on my research. Prostitutes were ordered to shave their naughty bits back in the day to prevent the spread of pubic lice. While sensible, this left women clean shaven – a look that was centuries before it’s time. Though we all like to imagine women being hair-free then as they are today, that was not the case. Women did not even shave their armpits until the early 1900’s when an ad showed a woman in a dress sporting silky smooth underarms. The fad of shaving legs came later as hemlines started creeping up and the concept of shaving the pubic region is owed primarily to the prevalence of contemporary porn and their need to “show all”. That said, having freshly shorn bits in 1450 was kind of like a woman today going full bush under her arms – unexpected, but in that not so pleasant kind of way. So, the merkin was invented. Not only did it cover the smooth (stubbly?) skin, it could also be removed, washed, deloused and replaced.
The second theory doesn’t match my historical findings and, I believe, is more for shock value. The theory states merkins were invented to cover weeping syphilis sores and to mask hair falling out from mercury treatments (a common syphilis “cure”). The first reason I do not support this theory is because syphilis wasn’t reported until 1494 during the French invasion. Initially everyone played the blame name game. The French called it the Pox of Naples, the British called it the French Disease, the Turks called it the British Disease. You get the idea. At any rate, if syphilis was not present until the end of the 15th century, the merkin would not have shown up until then as well instead of almost 50 years prior.
Time wasn’t the only crack I found in the second theory. There is the disease itself. Syphilis shows itself 30 – 90 days after exposure in the form of a pain-free, non-itchy legions (don’t look up the pic, I promise you do NOT want to see.) They will typically only form on the area surrounding the genitals around 2-7% of the time. The legions, or chancres, will almost certainly show on a man’s penis or a woman’s cervix. As the merkin was used initially by females and the cervix is not visible, this jabs another hold in that second theory. The next stage of syphilis after those chancres is a massive rash covering the trunk of the body, palms and soles. I don’t think a merkin would hide that. Just sayin’
Syphilis was treated by either the papal solution of consuming powdered guaiacum wood (also called “Holy wood”) or after 1550 by mercury. As you know, mercury is a nasty substance that causes everything from hair and tooth loss to paralysis and death. Well, back then they thought it was the magic cure for syphilis (as well as several other diseases). Syphilis sufferers were placed into hot rooms and breathed in vaporized forms of mercury, they swallowed ‘blue pills’ with mercury and even applied mercury directly to the chancres. Ugh, one shudders to even imagine the last one. So, while mercury did cause hair loss, this ‘cure’ was not around until a century after the invention of the merkin. Side note – no mention has been made to mercury actually curing syphilis, yet another form of treatment was not invented until 1910.
And once again I’ve digressed. Back to the merkin itself. What was the merkin made of? You sure you wanna know? *eyebrow waggle* Of course you do or would never have gotten past the syphilis section (and trust me, I left out the nastier details…) As 15th century wig makers lacked the man-made synthetics of today, merkins were made using real hair. Either from horses or goats or corpses. Yeah, corpses. It was actually a pretty lucrative venture for grave robbers from what I read. It’s horrifying to think, but imagine – these were prostitutes, women selling their bodies for food. Do you really think they had the money to go out and buy a fancy wig with hair generated by some little maiden who’d sold her shimmering tresses to buy her beloved a watch chain? OK, wrong century reference, but you get what I’m saying.
At any rate, the merkin ended up catching on with some of the nobles as well once they realized the limitless possibilities of decoration. Pearls could be threaded through the merkin as well as different colored hair, ribbons, etc. Kinda like historic vejazzling if you will…just with more fluff (literally)
So, the next time someone mentions a merkin, not only will you know what it is, you’ll also have some verrrrry interesting topics to bring up. Enjoy!
P.S. Seriously, don’t look up the syphilis chancre pics. Don’t. Do. It.
P.S.S. Thank you to the following address of the person who posted the awesome merkin pic above. J (Giving props where they’re due) http://peekabublog.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/featured_promotion11.jpg?w=380