‘to have straws in one’s hair’: meaning and origin

The phrase to have straws in one’s hair means to be insane, eccentric or distracted.

It is often—and erroneously—said that it originated in the notion that patients in mental asylums got straw from the floor caught up in their hair.

But I have discovered that the phrase actually originated in the fact that in 19th-century productions of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Ophelia appeared with straws in her hair in her ‘mad scene’ (i.e. Act 4, scene 5).

The earliest instances of straws in one’s hair that I have found refer to this fact; the earliest is from Extemporaneous Dramas. Nᴏ. 1., published in Punch, or the London Charivari (London) of January 1842:

Scene.—Green Room. Ophelia discovered with straws in her hair, and sucking a Crevilli lozenge.
     Enter Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.
Good evening, Miss Smith.
Ah! how are you, Brown?
Pretty bobbish, thank you.
     Enter Hamlet, who slaps his Father’s Ghost familiarly upon the back.
I say, old boy, are you going to sup at the “Garrick’s Head?”
Yes; I think shall have a rabbit or a baked potato.

Likewise, in Life in Victoria or Victoria in 1853, and Victoria in 1858: showing the march of improvement made by the colony within those periods, in town and country, cities and diggings (London, 1859), William Kelly (circa 1813-1872), Irish author and barrister, mentioned the fact that the actress interpreting the role of Ophelia had straws in her hair in his account of a turbulent performance of Hamlet at the Queen’s Theatre, Melbourne, in 1853:

The manager at length came forward to invoke a hearing, but nobody seemed aware of his presence. Then poor Ophelia, with straws in her hair, endeavoured to bring the lunatics to reason, and after a world of curtseying, she induced a pause, but as she was about uttering the first word of remonstrance, a riotous sailor roared out, “Come, give us ‘Black-eyed Susan,’ old gal!” which produced such an unconquerable relapse, there was no alternative but cut down the remainder of the performance to the last scene, where the poisonings and sword practice brought the performance to an agreeable conclusion.

According to the following theatrical review from The Illustrated London News of Saturday 27th September 1890, any role of a woman gone mad came to be symbolised by straws in the actress’s hair:

And so we come to “Ravenswood.” The old playgoer shook his head dismally. What on earth more could be done with Sir Walter Scott’s “Bride of Lammermoor”? Everyone had taken a turn at it for the best part of a century. It had been elevated and degraded and vulgarised. It had been used as a romantic opera and as a cheap melodrama. Edgar of Ravenswood had departed out of this life in every possible fashion, and Lucy Ashton had given up the ghost in every imaginable position. She had dropped down dead from a broken heart, and she had gone mad in white satin and white muslin, with or without the straws in her hair, according to established theatrical convention.

Straws stuck in a person’s hair therefore became a distinctive feature in any depiction of insanity, as explained in The Morning Advertiser (London) of Tuesday 14th June 1870:

There are many true words said to be conveyed in jests, and when Punch gave a funny portrait of the gentleman who sent money to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for arrears of income-tax which had been evaded, and represented the repentent [sic] defaulter as an idiot in Colney Hatch ¹,  with straws in his hair and other indicia of the weakest and lowest form of insanity, it only gave pictorial expression to the strong feeling and conviction which prevails that there is one income tax for the rich and another for the poor.

¹ Colney Hatch: the name of a Middlesex village, and of a hospital for the mentally ill opened there in 1851

In literature too, straws in one’s hair became a cliché; for instance, on Friday 25th December 1863, The Birmingham Daily Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire) published the first chapter of Furora Lloyd, a parody of overdramatic novels, containing the following:

Furora was found in the hotel stables sticking straws in her hair. She was removed to a neighbouring asylum.

As late as Sunday 25th June 1933, in the Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California), Isabel Paterson (1886-1961), Canadian-American journalist, novelist, political philosopher, and literary and cultural critic, referred to herself in the following manner at the beginning of her column Turns with the Bookworm:

Ophelia will now stick a few more straws in her hair and go through her weekly mad scene.

The earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from The Plumas National (Quincy, Plumas County, California) of Saturday 20th June 1874:

A colored man was lately put on trial in Hernando, Miss., for horse stealing. Now, there is another luxury which has come with the new order of things to be indulged in even in those far off regions—the luxury of temporary insanity. It was pleaded that the horse-stealer of African descent was not in his right mind when he did the deed. Whereupon ex-Gov. Clark, who was acting District-Attorney, argued thus to the jury: “If the prisoner is insane he should be sent to Jackson to the lunatic asylum. If he is a thief he should be sent there to the State Penitentiary. If he is partly a thief and partly an idiot, he should be sent there to the State Legislature.” We do not know exactly how they settled it, but at any rate they sent them an [sic] to Jackson. He may be pining in the asylum, with straws in his hair. He may be a State prisoner in a coat of two colors. He may be an honored member of the State Government. What is odd is that nobody suggested sending him to Washington. If those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad, the Mississippi maniac would have found a plenty of mad people in the capital. If he wanted to practice the golden precept of “Honor among thieves,” he would have found an opportunity there. And if he merely wanted to talk horse, being himself a judge of the animal, he might have found at a certain end of the avenue a man to talk horse with him to his heart’s content.—N. Y. Tribune.

Early instances of the phrase also appear in British English; the following is from John Bull’s Jokes, published in the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle (Portsmouth, Hampshire) of Saturday 27th November 1886 (the newspaper mentions that it is quoting “The Talk of the Clubs;” or, Told by the “Yorkshire Post” Man’s Sister, published in Funny Folks):

There’s no doubt Gladstone’s ² as mad as a March hare. Why, they say that Childers ³ met him walking through Hawarden Park in the rain with a lot of straws in his hair.

² William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98), British Liberal statesman
³ Hugh Culling Eardley Childers (1827-96), British Liberal statesman

In the illustration for A Mad Tea-Party, one of the chapters of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (MacMillan & Co. – London, 1865), by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – 1832-98), John Tenniel (1820-1914) drew straw in the March Hare’s hair to show that he was mad; this was later described in The Nursery “Alice”: containing twenty coloured enlargements from Tenniel’s illustrations to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: with text adapted to nursery readers by Lewis Carroll: the cover designed and coloured by E. Gertrude Thomson (MacMillan & Co. – London, 1889):

The Mad Tea-Party - The Nursery Alice (1889)

That’s the March Hare, with the long ears, and straws mixed up with his hair. The straws showed he was mad—I don’t know why. Never twist up straws among your hair, for fear people should think you’re mad!

The English author Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) used the phrase on several occasions about Sir Roderick Glossop, a “nerve specialist” in the stories of the upper-class world of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves; for example, the following is from The Inimitable Jeeves (London, 1923):

Sir Roderick Glossop, Honoria’s father, is always called a nerve specialist, because it sounds better, but everybody knows that he’s really a sort of janitor to the looney-bin. I mean to say, when your uncle the Duke begins to feel the strain a bit and you find him in the blue drawing-room sticking straws in his hair, old Glossop is the first person you send for. He toddles round, gives the patient the once-over, talks about over-excited nervous systems, and recommends complete rest and all that sort of thing. Practically every posh family in the country has called him in at one time or another, and I suppose that, being in that position – I mean constantly having to sit on people’s heads while their nearest and dearest phone to the asylum to send round the wagon – does tend to make a chappie take what you might call a warped view of humanity.


Other words or phrases of theatrical origin:

to be decent (sufficiently clothed to see visitors)
Mrs Grundy
Paul Pry
Box and Cox
Hamlet without the Prince
old chestnut
to play to the gallery
to steal someone’s thunder
bums on seats

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