Why do women carry things on their heads?

Jane Whittle

Agnes Parker of Chilton Cantelo, Somerset, was crossing a bridge in 1592 with a bundle of hay on her head and a pot for milking in her hand, when a gust of wind blew her off and into the water below, where she drowned. Clearly the combination of a large load of hay on your head, a heavy woollen dress and high winds could be fatal. Mark has already mentioned this case from the coroners’ inquests in his post on agricultural work. But it got me thinking about another set of issues altogether. Why did (and do) women carry things on their heads?

There is good visual evidence from medieval and early modern north-west Europe that it used to be commonplace for women to carry heavy or awkward loads in this way. The earliest English example I know is in the Luttrell Psalter, an exceptionally revealing illuminated manuscript from the early fourteenth century, now owned by the British Library. Among its many scenes of agricultural life is one of sheep being milked in a pen, whilst two women walk away with pots on their heads, presumably carrying the milk back to the farm:

luttrell

For the early modern period such images are common. The image below on the left is from a 1540s book of hours (the ‘Golf Book’, held at the British Library) from Flanders, and shows a woman carrying food out to harvest workers, with a basket on her head. A very similar English scene is found in the Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 from the Folger Library, below on the right:

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3The two women in this seventeenth century woodcut are probably more milkmaids, but here carrying wooden buckets on their heads rather than pots. Perhaps the most plentiful source of these images are the many ‘Cries of London’ produced between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth century, which turned small-scale itinerant retailers of specialist products into a subject of picturesque fascination. Many of these street-sellers were women, and most carried their goods on their heads – judging by these images:

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Commonplace in the early modern period, these images seem to disappear after around 1820. This romanticised image of a rural milkmaid is one late example from the second half of nineteenth century, from a painting by Myles Birket Foster:

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Few appear in the photographical age. An admittedly not very scientific trawl of Google images turned up one image from Scotland of young female miners from the late -nineteenth century, and a posed image of a woman in rural France from the 1950s balancing a load of hay on her head while raking:

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Of course, photographic images of women carrying pots of water and goods destined for market are familiar to modern eyes as iconic images of non-western societies. It is not difficult to find photographic images of women carrying things in this way in rural south Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, for instance:

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13Images of men carrying loads on their heads do occur, historically and in the modern world – but they are less common than images of women carrying things in this way.

In summary, then:

  1. Women used to carry heavy and awkward loads on their heads in pre-industrial north-west Europe.
  2. They had largely stopped doing this by the mid-nineteenth century.
  3. Women still carry loads in this way in rural societies based on small scale agriculture (peasant societies) in the modern world.
  4. Carrying loads on one’s head is gendered: it was (and is) more common for women than men.

What can we conclude from all this? Well these conclusions are speculative, but to me it seems that first, women carry things on their heads rather than men because men have easier access to other forms of transport. On early modern farms men drove carts and were responsible for caring for the horses. So far the project hasn’t found any examples of women driving carts. Women did ride horses, but perhaps not as often as men.

Second, women were expected to undertake hard physical work, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads. They learnt the skill of carrying heavy loads on their heads at a young age, and did so habitually as young women when required to transport pots, buckets, baskets and bundles that were bulky or heavy. There is evidence of women’s hard physical work from other sources. Bones from the medieval village of Wharram Percy demonstrate that both women and men bore the burden of hard physical labour, although the wear and tear on their skeletons suggests slightly different work patterns.[1]

Third, the fact that women routinely carried heavy loads on their heads in pre-industrial societies should remind us that (a) much routine work, such as collecting water, gathering fuel and laundering linens was physically demanding; (b) agriculture in the pre-industrial economy required a lot of fetching and carrying on foot – between house and fields (taking out meals and fodder, bringing in milk) – and between farm and market (taking in goods to sell and returning with purchases), and much of this was done by women; (c) that many women with very few resources made their living from selling small goods, as the Cries of London and Paris show – another very physically demanding occupation.

At least one question that remains is why (and when exactly) did women in north-west Europe stop carrying things on their heads? I’ll leave that one with the modernists among you – and any other comments, references and images on this topic that readers have would also be gratefully received.


[1] S. Mays, ‘The Human Remains’ in S. Mays, C. Harding and C. Heighway, The Churchyard: Wharram, A Study of Settlement on the Yorkshire Wolds, XI (York University Archaeological Publications 13, 2007), pp.77-192.

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About Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700

Leverhulme Funded Project at University of Exeter: Pioneering a New Methodological Approach to Early Modern Women's Work
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14 Responses to Why do women carry things on their heads?

  1. Ann Bond says:

    Fascinating thoughts! You’ve got me thinking too so here’s a completely random, unscientific, un-researched, thought. Carrying goods on your head is impossible if you are wearing a hat. A scarf of some kind maybe or some kind of padding to provide some protection from the load you are carrying but not millinery. So when did wearing hats become the norm for working women? I imagine there would have been a ‘trickle down’ factor at play. Women farmers and wives of farmers probably began the trend, adopted from contact with more urban societies, but then copied by farm servants as well as other working women. Thinking of women workers in other contexts, by the middle of the nineteenth-century the Bryant and May match women were famed for their elaborate headgear as were the balmaidens of the Devon and Cornwall mining communities. The elaborate hats were probably not worn whilst actually working but travelling to and from work they were and perhaps that influenced how women agricultural workers wanted to be seen when travelling too and from market?
    As I said un-researched!

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  2. Women's Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 says:

    We habe also found several further images of 17th century milk maids carrying pails of milk on their heads in ballads from the Pepys and Roxburghe collections. You can view them here:

    http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/30170/image

    http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/21211/image

    There are also some verses from a 1620s ballad called ‘The Countrey Lasse’ which make reference to carrying pails on heads:

    That which your City Damsells scorne,
    we hold our chiefest Jewell,
    Without, to worke at Hay and corne,
    within, to bake and brew well:
    To keepe the Dayry decently,
    and all things cleane and neatly,
    Your city Minions doe defie,
    their scorne we weigh not greatly:
    Downe, etc.

    When we together a milking goe,
    with payles upon our heads a,
    And walking over woods and fields,
    where grasse and flowers spreds a,
    In honest pleasure we delight,
    which makes our labour sweet a,
    And mirth exceeds on every side,
    when Lads and Lasses meet a:
    Downe, etc.

    Full ballad here:
    http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/20124/image

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  3. Teresa Phipps says:

    Great post and interesting that written sources also refer to women carrying things on their heads. So we know this wasn’t just an artistic representation of women. I wonder what other parallels there are between pre-industrial women’s work and the work of women in rural/developing societies?

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  4. Perhaps you haven’t said this explicitly because it’s taken for granted, but men don’t/didn’t carry things on their head because of their superior upper body strength. They can just use their strong arms, whereas women find the head easier.

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  5. Moira Macdonald says:

    In 1995 the New Scientist reported on an article in the journal Nature (which I haven’t found, so here is the New Scientist link – https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14619760-900-women-with-a-head-for-weights/)
    Carrying weighty items on your head – once you have learnt how to – is more efficient. In Africa I have seen women make quoits out of long grass stems and / or bits of cloth to put between their head and the carried object. This makes it easier to balance whatever it is and no doubt, on long, journies, warded off headaches.

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  7. I am excited by these images but less so by the arguments and conclusions. The ‘cock-shy’ game with a goose is an image new to me and the excellent early costrel similarly. I suggest that the ‘buckets’ with a single handle are also more appropriately called ‘piggins’ which were (and still are I suspect) coopered vessels common in pre-plastic environments although I have never really understood the point of the single handle.
    There are problems with the interpretation and comments on the general subject of carrying things on heads, however. For example, it is claimed that it was essentially female and due to transport options.
    Men did so as well, albeit perhaps in somewhat specialised environments such as Billingsgate fish market. And in a contradiction of the suggestion that ‘carrying goods on your head is impossible if you are wearing a hat’ (Ann Bond) the Billingsgate men used specifically-designed leather hats for the task. They continued to carry heavy loads on their heads (and for all I know still do so, although possibly ‘health and safety’ has put an end to it) long after the period in which it seems that ‘western’ women ceased doing so.
    There may be a simpler reason why it is unusual for men to carry things on their heads, and it may be related to the concept of ‘broad-shoulders’. Men typically heft things up on to their shoulders (as in the 17th-century traders’ images as often as women head-carried), which are possibly more suited to the task than women’s – I generalize, but my point is that men frequently use their shoulders when women rarely seem (or seemed?) to do so. A good example is St Christopher carrying the Christ child, typically (always?) on his shoulder, where a female carrying a child without the use of a sling or carrier or other aid would usually carry it in her arms or over her hips. I wonder whether the fact that women normally cared for (care for) children was also a factor, since grabbing little Jimmy and/or Jane around the wrist or clipping them round the ear would necessitate at least one free hand.
    There is a genderist bias in the presumption that men have more access to vehicles than do women (possibly, but not absolutely true – vehicles are normally for massive loads or long distance carrying, which for home-based women would have been less needed) rather than recognition that men and women carry things differently over what we might call walking distances. It does not totally explain why men and women carry/carried in different ways, but we should accept that it is not necessarily a transport issue. At age seven or so I used to fetch the weekly shop in a string vegetable sack and I would carry it home over my shoulder (as Santa). It seems almost instinctive in boys. Do girls do the same thing, I wonder? Possibly not – see how little girls instinctively plant younger siblings astride their hips while boys tend to use piggy-back.

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  8. The single handle containers are probably called pails as they are shown with milkmaids.They are often shown with a crossbar to prevent the hand sliding up and off when raising a pail onto the head. Interestingly there is no evidence either in the corpus pictorum ( volumes 27-31 of clothes of the common people in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England) or in the mortex of over 19, 000 wills and inventories for the use of yokes in the period 1558-1660. There are plenty examples of women wearing hats under loads.

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    • Malcolm Watkins says:

      I think the pails with a single handle formed from having one stave longer than the rest are correctly called ‘piggins’

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  9. forestperson says:

    I remember seeing women carrying car batteries on their heads in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan in 1979. Later in the same trip we watched Kuwaiti porters (male of cours) loading items like chest freezers onto a boat, by carrying them on their backs (steadying them with ropes, I think). Still later, we spent several months in India. I remember observing that in India, railway porters carry the sorts of things we saw being carried on men’s backs in Kuwait, ON THEIR HEADS. Of course railway porters in India wear turbans, an it is a very common sight to see them carrying luggage and all kinds of items on their heads. They do seem (from Google images) however, to be an exception to the female carrying on head rule.

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  10. Joshua M says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I think it’s a subject worth focusing on.

    The major point to my mind is that we, humans, are capable of so much more than we mostly are doing today. We have the architecture to carry things in this way, while carrying on a conversation, gesturing, smiling and laughing, all with ease–no hands! I have seen this in West Africa, and the people there have an amazing light, health, grace, poise, power, and energy to them. We humans used to have a level of general coordination that allowed us to balance heavy, heavy items (70 lbs) on the head with no hands, and are in the modern “developed” world losing that ability. (It seems to me and did to F.M. Alexander that, along with the ability to balance things, a high level of coordination meant presence of mind, readiness to deal with a crisis, ability to remember epics without the written word, grace and poise, clarity of thought and emotion.) What we used to learn by default from elders we need to seek deliberately today. The Industrial Revolution has impacted us in ways we have not fully grasped. This fact is understood by some: Alexander Technique teachers are the most widely known people to focus on this (and of course the Alexander Technique is hardly known, and, I’d say, widely misunderstood); I’ve just heard from a Russian gentleman that the special forces methods included attention to the spine (and the spine is something that balances a 12-15lb weight on top if it–ie your head–so it sounds like they’re aware of the coordination factor’s importance relative to that of muscle strength); and singers, actors, secret agents, public speakers, factory workers, and desk workers all are making use of professional help in relearning coordination. Because it’s not that visible to the unaware most of the day, and because you can’t take a pill for it, it’s not going to get popular to fix it any time soon. The consequences are pain, irritation, many missed days of work, general grouchiness–for which people still try to prescribe braces, specific muscle exercises, ergonomic fixes, zappers, etc. But none of these will restore the ability to head-carry with virtuosity.

    In terms of gender, what I have been told is that in the Dagara village women are the keepers of water and so carry that, whereas men are not. Men tend fields and hunt, but what you would carry would be a sheaf or animal, therefore a) not a fluid needing delicate balance and b) seasonal. I was in Africa only in the winter, so I only saw women carrying on their heads. I don’t know what would happen in the farming season. I may have seen one man carrying a small stool on his head but I don’t remember for sure, and that is a relatively light load (maybe 10 lbs tops).

    Another point to that may be relevant is that in most cases women’s center of gravity is lower than men’s, so the degree of “groundedness” or stability women have makes them better at a task that requires a high degree of balance. Carrying on one’s head, especially carrying a liquid (without hands) may be too hard for most men. But I think coordination is a much larger factor. The degree of technical musical ability the male balaphone players and dancers had there far exceeds most conservatory students I’ve witnessed in the West.

    I write this not as someone who’s mastered head-carrying, I am still barely able to do it after years of studying in and training in Alexander Technique. It’s not a particular goal of mine, but if I could do it it would indicate to me that I was in a very well-coordinated momentum. I started from such a place of poor coordination relative to other trainees, of over-tension and collapse, that I’m not a great example of coordination yet. But the principle is valid and I see others relearning coordination with ease and doing things that could be labeled feats of coordination.

    Another point: trying to balance a book on your head is different from putting something on your head because it’s a sure place to rest it. The former will have you narrow your focus to the book and be more likely to drop it, while overly tensing the rest of you; the latter is simply developing and maintaining a natural skill that you developed when learning how to walk–how to balance this heavy melon on top of the mast of the spine (it’s far, far heavier relative to the body weight of a toddler–almost 50% of your weight is head if you’re 30 lbs! if you weight 120 lbs, shouldn’t you be able to balance 45?)

    The main point I want to make is that we have choices about how we think. When we look at someone carrying something on her head, we can see only a person who lacks a cart or we can see also a person with an extraordinary ability that we all could learn from. You can either think of your head as how you get your visual sense around the world or as another limb.

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