WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia—With a quick look, the hairdresser sizes us up as we walk into her shop on a sunny afternoon.
She speaks to us kindly but makes plain her dismay at our physical appearance.
“Ladies,” she says in an Irish accent, “you know you can’t wear your hair down. Was it the rain and wind that knocked you pretty girls’ hair down? If I was about to walk with my hair down, it’d be as if I was walking around in my undergarments.”
Our disheveled state reveals that we are not exactly from these parts.
“I thought you weren’t living in the Colonies,” she says, and brightens up. “No doubt you’ve come here! It’s the finest shop in the city. I don’t mean to be bragging … but I do. Mr. Jefferson shops here. As a matter of fact we’re making a wig for him right here.”
Mary—hairdresser, wigmaker, and a real character from the 18th century—is one feisty name dropper: Not only does Mr. Thomas Jefferson patronize her shop, but so do Mr. Patrick Henry and the Randolphs.
Like Mark Twain’s Yankee in King Arthur’s court, we’ve plunged straight from the 21st century to colonial America.
Colonial Williamsburg, where I am, is the largest living history museum in the country. It encompasses more than 300 acres and nearly 600 buildings, including the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol, where the House of Burgesses met from 1705 to 1779. In 1699, Williamsburg became the capital of Virginia. At the time, it was the wealthiest colony in America.
The interpreters of living history who work here, from Founding Father to hairdresser, are animated by a remarkable obsession to make those times come alive for visitors.
Mary has now moved on to speaking to one of the gentlemen in our party, and questions his short hair.
“The reason I’m asking why you have your hair cropped up sort, sir, is everyone knows that here we follow the fashions from Europe; and short cropped hair, that’s what we do to convicts and criminals,” she tells him.
In the space of a few minutes, we learn that anyone who’s anyone wears a wig. That’d be about five percent of all of Virginia—we’re talking ship captains, merchants, military, clergy. The kind of wig even conveys the profession of the wearer.
“Ladies, you better pay attention,” Mary says, pointing at the wigs in the shop. “Those of you not married, you better identify these because you don’t want a cheap man, isn’t that true, girls?”
Giggles go all around.
The wigs aren’t cheap. One wig costs eight pounds sterling, enough to buy two and a half acres of land on the outskirts of the city.
We wind up our visit as she eyes some ladies for fancy wigs for the governor’s ball—first they will have to be shorn, of course—and extracts promises for a future visit. Then she ushers us out her back door.
“I can’t have you go out the front door looking as you do, they’ll think I’ve done it,” she says.
The music of flutes and drums carries through the air. Musicians march through the historic town toward the Capitol, where, in 1865, a fiery Patrick Henry advocated against the Stamp Act, which taxed newspapers, licensees, and most legal documents.
“If this be treason,” he said during the debate, “make the most of it.”
Colonial Williamsburg’s flair for the theatrical translates to plays that include plenty of audience interaction. “Resolved, an American Experiment” takes participants through events leading up to the fifth Virginia Convention in 1776, to experience the historic moment when Virginia chose independence.
Talk of independence is heady stuff. As we stomp our feet, shout disapproval at the English overlords, and yell out “Huzzah!” we can’t help but get caught up in all the action.
As we head out from the Capitol, we are stopped by a dapper gentleman with a walking stick. It turns out it’s George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The document played a pivotal role in influencing Jefferson, and his penning of the Declaration.
I admit I’m a little tongue-tied—it is easier for me to speak about hair fashion than political philosophy. I take my leave, heading to the gardens at the governor’s palace. Someone important is about to speak.
Mr. Jefferson Speaks
It seems the crowd’s 21st-century fashion isn’t lost on Thomas Jefferson, either. He surveys the crowd, noting the women in “pantaloons,” among many other faux pas, and quips, “I’ve always dressed for comfort, but you overwhelm me.”
Over the course of 45 minutes, Jefferson speaks eloquently on topics ranging from his education to the printing press to the matter of self-government, drawing amens more than once.
It brings us, inevitably, to the work he is best known for.
“The Declaration is not law,” he says, “it’s a letter. It’s an opinion but it’s based in fact, rest assured, from time immemorial.”
He tells us of the thinkers who influenced him, from Aristotle to Cicero to John Locke.
“Authors you read, and read frequently, do you not?” he asks.
“No … no, you do not. I know you do not,” he answers himself, provoking some laughter.
He reminds us that in 1776, most Americans couldn’t read. It was his task to explain things “in simple terms, to write a dramatic piece that would lift the human spirit to noble sentiments, of what man accomplish in collaboration with his fellow man to make a better world, for generations yet unborn.”
It is a deeply human Jefferson, actually. We learn, or are reminded, that Jefferson lost his father at age 14. He had 10 siblings.
“It is a wonder that I did not fall off into bad company,” he reflects. But he credits the men in his life as his models—George Wythe and William Small among them. It was imitation alone, not reasoning (for how is a boy of 14 to reason, he asked), that saved him.
“It is our actions, it is our conversations that are of greater influence on your young, whether they be 4 or 14 years, than we might otherwise realize,” he says.
After a few questions from the audience, the crowd disperses. But here in the palace gardens, where Thomas Jefferson walked more than 200 years ago, and in the golden light of the afternoon, his words still echo.
As I make my way through the gardens, I reflect on the sacrifices and achievements of these early Americans, and I am grateful.
Fun for the Family
Each day at Colonial Williamsburg is packed with activities—plays, tours, carriage rides, musket firing. Make time for visits to the shops (such as the hairdresser’s).
Other highlights include a ghost tour, which takes place at night, when the shadows of the old historic buildings become spooky enough to fire up the imagination. Many of the stories are based on staff accounts, and though I won’t divulge them, I’ll say they have stayed with me even months after my visit.
Close to Williamsburg, a great deal of history awaits at a couple of other destinations—Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, and Yorktown, the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution.
At the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the exhibit “Forgotten Soldier” explores the stories of free and enslaved African Americans who fought on both sides of the war. The exhibit ends March 22, 2020.
Finally, if the thrill of history wears off, and you find your family in need of an adrenaline rush, head to Busch Gardens. The newest ride is Finnegan’s Flyer, a pendulum type of attraction that sends its riders up to 80 feet at 45 miles per hour.
Where to Stay
Nothing beats the convenience of staying at Colonial Williamsburg properties, especially if you plan on attending evening events such as concerts or ghost tours.
Colonial Williamsburg has six hotel properties close to the area. I stayed in comfort at the Williamsburg Lodge. The on-site restaurant Traditions offers a taste of the South, with dishes such as shrimp and grits.
The more upscale Williamsburg Inn, with its Regency style, exudes elegance. Its Social Terrace, on the patio, overlooks the beautiful Golden Horseshoe Golf Club.
A summer getaway package includes nightly accommodations, breakfast, a three-day pass to Busch Gardens, and coupons worth up to $350 of resort savings.
Where to Eat
Various taverns give visitors a taste of colonial dishes, and they were more global in flavor than I would have imagined. At Shields Tavern, candlelight gives a cozy feel, while waitstaff graciously explain the dishes. How about a Caribbean “meat pye” served with mango chutney? Or the beef simmered in ale-laced sauce, with garlic mashed potatoes?
Taste Studio, part of Colonial Williamsburg Resorts, is a demonstration kitchen where chefs treat guests with experiences from spirits sampling to chocolate tastings.
Don’t skip town without stopping by La Tienda. Owned by the Harris family, who lived in Spain during the 1970s, it’s both a shop, with hundreds of Spanish products, and a restaurant. The tapas—from the more familiar, such as patatas bravas, to the more unusual, like the deep-fried eggplant slices with honey—will transport you right to Spain.
The author was a guest of Visit Williamsburg.