Someone forwarded me this myth in one of those infernal lists of “Now You Know the Truth” collections that are mostly rubbish. It said:
Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. They couldn’t wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term ‘big wig…’
This sounded so absurd that I was positive it was a myth. And it is, technically speaking. But when I dug into the subject, I found an element of truth that demonstrates precisely how this myth got started.
Turning real hair into a wig required many steps: take fresh hanks of hair, roll them onto porcelain curlers, and tie up with string. After making eight or nine of these packets, as they were called, the wigmaker would boil them for a while, then dry them using an oven in place of a hair dryer. For customers who wanted a frizzy style wig, the wigmaker had an extra step to complete. He would need to wrap the dried packets in cheesecloth and take them to a baker, where they would be encased in a sort of flour paste and baked again.
“Not all hair was baked again,” explains Betty Myers, supervisor of the Wig Shop and a national authority on the subject of wigs, “just the hair that was being prepared for the frizz look.” Frizzy wig styles appealed especially to the clergy and barristers, as well as to other fashionable people of England and France during the middle and late eighteenth century. Others might prefer wigs with a rolled curl, which could be accomplished with curling irons.
In his 1767 book, Art of the Wigmaker, Mon. de Garsault describes the process of baking hair that was wound on curlers, but never a whole wig. After boiling and drying the hair curlers, he instructs the reader to arrange them in “several layers one on top of the other, the whole is given the form of a loaf. Tie the package with string, and take it to the Ginger-bread Maker or the Baker, who having received it surrounds it with a paste of rye flour, puts it in a moderate oven and cooks it. The ‘loaf’ being cooked, and sent back to you whilst hot, break it open and remove all the ‘sets’. . .”
By calling the bunch of curlers a “loaf” and by mentioning a paste of rye flour and a bakery oven, it seems Monsieur Garsault inadvertently started the idea of cooking wigs inside loaves of bread.
To summarize: While wigs were not baked inside loaves of bread, bunches of curls were heated in ovens to dry and frizz them. To protect the hair during the baking process, these curls were encased in a flour paste.