Carrying a burden on top of the head [vintage pics]- Is it a lost skill in the United States?

Have you ever tried walking while carrying something on your head? It is not as easy as it may look. I remember trying when I was younger with only a book on my head. It was supposed to be a way to look graceful when I walked.

Photographs below by Marion Post Walcott – Natchez, Mississippi August 1940


During the Victorian era, when finishing schools for young women were at their peak and manners and comportment were more rigid, young women were sometimes instructed to improve their posture by balancing books or a teacup and saucer on their heads while walking and getting up or down from a chair. They were told to model themselves after “the Egyptian water-carrier, with the jug of water poised so prettily on her head, and her figure so straight and beautiful.

Natchez  wolcott 1940lady7

I believe it became popular again in the ’50s when the Musical, My Fair Lady, came out on film starring Audrey Hepburn in 1964.  If I remember correctly, there is a scene in the musical where Eliza practices walking with a book on her head so she could learn to walk like a fair lady

The practice of carrying a burden on top of the head has existed since ancient times. African-American women continued the practice during the 19th century, which they learned from elder Africans brought from Africa to work in America as slaves.


Until the turn of the 20th century, African-American women in the Southern states continued carrying baskets and bundles of folded clothes on top of their heads, when they found work as “wash-women”, doing laundry for white employers.lady4

This practice ended when the automobile became common in affluent communities, when employers began delivering the clothing to the homes of the wash-women, rather than the wash-women walking to the employers’ homes. The practice was efficient, at a time when there were no vehicles available for carrying burdens/The practice was efficient, at a time when there were no vehicles available for carrying burdens. lady10One observer during the Civil War noted seeing the impressive sense of balance and dexterity that the practice gave women in South Carolina: “I have seen a woman, with a brimming water-pail balanced on her head, or perhaps a cup, saucer, and spoon, stop suddenly, turn round, stoop to pick up a missile, rise again, fling it, light a pipe, and go through many revolutions with either hand or both, without spilling a drop


Today, women and men may be seen carrying burdens on top of their heads where there is no less expensive, or more efficient, way of transporting workloads. In India, women still carry baskets of bricks to workmen on construction sites.

In these photographs taken in the August heat of 1940 by Marion Post Wolcott, they also appear to be a good shade from the hot sun. lady2 marion post Walcott Aug. 1940

FreeHearts: 2nd edition A Novel of Colonial America Col. John Washington (ancestor of President George Washington), Randall Revell, Tom Cottingham, Edmund Beauchamp ward off Indian attacks and conquer the wilds of Maryland’s Eastern shore in 17th century colonial America in this historical novel, inspired by true events.

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She cohost the Podcast: Alabama Grist Mill and developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and

All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble.

She has authored numerous genealogy books.
RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE)
is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2)
is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series)
Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1)
is the continuation of the story. .

For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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