Head - Head matter

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820. Originally published by University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, 2007.

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[heede; hed; hed; heade]

A term with many meanings, most in the OED and not all discussed here. Most commonly it was applied elliptically, as in 'the best heads' and the 'courser heads' among the stock of a fletcher or ARROW maker [Inventories (1600)], in place of the full ARROW HEAD. Other distinct meanings noted in the Dictionary Archive are given below.

(1) HEAD DRESS, as in 'a yrd ¾th and Nail of cambrick for a head' [Tradecards (1742)], and 'Crape Ruffels, Heads, Tippets, &c. cleaned and made up' [Newspapers (1760)]

OED earliest date of use in this sense: 1494

(2) The cover of an ALEMBIC or CRUCIBLE; a STILL HEAD

OED earliest date of use: 1594 under Head

(3) In COOPERY, the piece or pieces of shaped wood that form the top or the bottom of a BARREL or the like; hence 'heads ready cutt' [Inventories (1669)], and BARREL HEAD

OED date of earliest use: 1390-1 under Head


OED earliest date of use: 1897

(5) A unit of measure for FLAX consisting of '12 'stricks' each of 'about ten handfulls' tied up into a bunch. According to Randle Holme, twelve of these bunches would make a KIRTLE, hence KIRTLE FLAX [Holme (2000)]. However, the Dictionary Archive suggest that the number of stricks in a head was not fixed, with NARVA FLAX and PETERBOROUGH FLAX each being defined as either 9 headed or 12 headed., as in '5 Tons of 9 headed Narva Flax, 5 Tons of 12 headed Narva Flax, 4 Tons of 9 headed Petersburgh Flax' [Newspapers (1750)], and 'About Ten Tons of Twelve-Head Peterborough Flax' [Newspapers (1770)]. It was also not used exclusively with flax. HEMP was also measured by the head, but possibly in smaller units, since '3 head' and '2 head' hemp have been noticed [Inventories (1690)]; [Inventories (1670)].

It seems that 'Head' may also have been used occasionally as a unit of measure for SILK, as in 'five heads of damaged legee', though what it represented in this context is unclear [Inventories (1697)].

OED earliest date of use: 1704 under Head (for Flax only)

(6) The knob of a PIN. Pin head were made separately and fixed to the shank, either by soldering as described in one statute [Acts (1545)] or by a STAMP or HEADING TREADLE, hence 'In the Pin Shopp ... 45 pound of Heads' of one pin maker [Inventories (1720)].

OED earliest date of use: 1542-3

(7) Similar in meaning is the head as a decorative knob, often made of a different metal, fixed as a handle to an implement like a FIRE SHOVEL or TONGUES as '15 Heads for Slice and Tongs' among the stock of a founder. He had a range of heads for this purpose, variously described and often in pairs to make a set of fire arms as 'A pair of Plain Heads'. Heads in this sense were sometimes quite valuable, being as much as 3s 6d the pair [Inventories (1733)].

Not found in the OED in this sense

(8) Heads have been noted in association with various TOOLs belonging to a button maker, as in '6 Turning Lathes 2 heads 21 P'r of Clams' [Inventories (1764)], and to a TIN man as in '18 Heads belonging swages' [Inventories (1799)]. The latter also had '2 round Heads & 1 long do; 4 pipe Tools & 5 Heads' among his BRASS working tools as well as 'Cast iron Heads' weighing over 2 CWT. In each case the heads were probably bits intended to be used in conjunction with a LATHE or a hand tool and were designed for shaping edges and forming grooves in metal objects.

Two other examples in the Dictionary Archive probably refer to tools of some sort. A manufacturer of CUTLERY had '22 payre of heads att 4s p paire', while a CLOCK maker had 'Brass Heads paterns' [Inventories (1734)], possibly the MOULDs used to make knobs as described above (7).

(9) A form of CONFECTIONERY, the exact nature of which is unknown. Heads in this sense have not been noted in the dictionaries, and appear only once in the Dictionary Archive among the stock of a London confectioner, as '44 Col'd Comfits 6 ½ Long Cakes 3 Vigo figgers 2 Collor'd Heads' [Inventories (1740)].

Along with the many other meanings that were attached to this ubiquitous term, some remain obscure, as the '18 heads stone bottle 30 Gallons round odd Heads & rounds' [Inventories (1690)]. These belonged to a GLASS seller, and the use of the term may be related to blowing glass in this instance.

As a unit of measure for FLAX: Found in units of DOZEN
As a knob: Found described as PLAIN, SMALL Found made of BRASS

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Rates, Recipes, Tradecards.
References: Holme (2000).

Head bar

A term not found in the dictionaries and only once in the Dictionary Archive where it appeared among the 'Utensills & Working Tooles' of a clothworker as 'pullies Pins & Head Barss' [Inventories (1720)]. He does not seem to have been weaving and had no LOOM, but he was operating as a shearman, processing the raw CLOTH. Although Randle Holme did not use the term, his illustration of a 'Clothier's 'Pirch' with a 'piece of Cloth pendant. ready for Rowing' (that is raising the nap on a piece of cloth prior to shearing it) is probably an alternative word for the same piece of equipment [Holme (2000)].

See also PERCH.
Sources: Inventories (late).
References: Holme (2000).

Head block

A mould on which to shape a HAT.

OED earliest date of use: 1575 as Block under Block

Sources: Inventories (late).

Head board

[head-board; headboard]

The decorative BOARD fixed at the head of a BED, sometimes abbreviated to HEAD.

OED online earliest date of use: 1730

Found described as carved, cut, GILT, NEW

See also HEADING.
Sources: Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Recipes.

Head brick

[head & 800 side bricks]

Also known as a header or a header BRICK. A brick designed to be laid in the wall so that only its end shows, as opposed to a SIDE BRICK or stretcher.

OED earliest date of use: 1688 under Header

Sources: Inventories (late).

Head brush

[head brushe]

A BRUSH for brushing or smoothing the hair. The Book of Rates of 1660 listed them as 'of haire' [Rates (1660)], suggesting that they were not necessarily particularly stiff.

OED earliest date of use: 1596

Found made of HAIR
Found rated by the DOZEN

Sources: Inventories (late), Rates.

Head cloth

[headclothe; headcloth; head clothe; head clos; head cloath]

A term with two meanings. It was first a cloth or covering for the head; in the plural the pieces composing a HEAD DRESS. In this sense it appears in the OED as early as a1000. As a piece of cloth fitted at the head of a bed, it first appears in the OED much later, that is 1730. Both meanings are found in the Dictionary Archive, usually in contexts that makes the meaning clear as 'headclothe and one cale' [Inventories (1578)], and 'two Suits of Head Cloaths Womens Girdles' [ [Inventories (1709)] in the first sense, and 'tester head Cloth w'th Bases' [Inventories (1714)], in the second.

Found described as CUPBOARD, STRIPED

Sources: Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).

Head collar

The OED suggests it is an alternative name for a HEAD STALL made of LEATHER. There is some difficulty with this. One entry in the Dictionary Archive contains both a head collar and head stalls as well as a HEAD [Inventories (1769)]. Wright suggests the head collar had a particular function being a HALTER or BRIDLE used in the stable to fasten the HORSE to the MANGER [Wright (1898-1905)]. Whether it was made of leather or not seems irrelevant.

OED online earliest use: 1903

Sources: Inventories (late).

Head dress

[head-dresse; headdresse; head dresse; head drese]

Any DRESS or covering for the head, especially an ornamental attire worn by WOMEN, applied in the early-eighteenth century (and at other times) to a HAT, BONNET, etc., or any material added to the growing hair for decoration [Cox (1966, pb 1969)]. Although noted elsewhere to have been applied to a WIG, this use of the term has not been noted in the Dictionary Archive. The term was sometimes abbreviated to HEAD.

OED earliest date of use: 1703; not found as a wig

Found described as LARGE, LITTLE Found made of CAMBRIC, FEATHERS

Sources: Diaries, Inventories (mid-period), Patents, Tradecards.
References: Cox (1966, pb 1989).

Head hair


This is a term not found in any of the dictionaries, and the only example in the Dictionary Archive gives no helpful context [Inventories (1701)]. It was possibly human HAIR ready to be sold on to a WIG maker.

Sources: Inventories (late).

Head kercher


Not found in the OED as such

Sources: Inventories (early).

Head knife


The OED defines it as a KNIFE used by whalers to cut off the head of a whale. This is clearly not the type of head knife found in the Dictionary Archive. The context of the only example suggests that it was not the same as a HEADING KNIFE as found in the Dictionary Archive among the TOOLs of COOPERY, but was one of the 'Tools used by Sadlers, Harness Makers and Bridle Makers' [Acts (1786)]. The act made it it one of the tools that it was legal to export. However, Salaman suggests that the head knife of the saddler was otherwise known as a 'Heading knife'. He describes it as a small KNIFE with a curved blade ending in a hook at either one or both ends. They were used for light and short cuts, or for cutting holes for the tongue of a BUCKLE [Salaman (1986)].

Not relevantly found in the OED

Sources: Acts.
References: Salaman (1986).

Head ladder

[head & tail ladder]

A movable addition fixed to the front of a CART or WAGON to increase its carrying capacity [Wright (1898-1905)]. It was used particularly for bulky goods like HAY or STRAW.

Not found in the OED

Sources: Inventories (late).
References: Wright (1898-1905).

Head line

The term is not found in the dictionaries in this sense, and only once in the Dictionary Archive. Here it appeared close to 'Lettice line', which was also measured by the STONE and was valued at slightly more, and 'Pound line' [Inventories (1734)]. HEAD was a unit of measure for imported FLAX. Head line was probably therefore flax (otherwise called LINE) measured in units of the HEAD.

Although the context of the example in the Dictionary Archive militates against it in the only example noted, head line did have an alternative meaning. That is, it was one of the short pieces of CORDAGE used to attach the sail to the YARD.

Not found in the OED in the first sense; 1626 in the second

Found in units of STONE

Sources: Inventories (late).

Head matter


The substance obtained from the head of the sperm whale, consisting of OIL and SPERMACETI, also sometimes called shortly HEAD.

OED earliest date of use: 1791

Sources: Acts, Rates.