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In my reading I came across this description:

His old red coat was sponged and pressed, his whiskers shone with pomade, his cap was on three hairs, his cane under his arm, and his monocle in his eye. [emphasis my own]
(Fraser, George Macdonald. Flashman on the March (pp. 261-262). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)

The fictional character was intended to be from 1868.

I went looking, and while I was able to find other instances I was unable to find an explanation of its meaning or any notion of how that supposedly arose.

My first thought was that it might be exclusively an English idiom, Fraser having been an Anglo-Scottish writer, but then I came across this description in an article titled "That Eccentric Englishman" in The American Magazine, vol. 25, c. 1888:

text of "on three hairs" from The American Magazine

That this is "The American Magazine" lampooning an Englishman would make it seem that the idiom was current in American English of the time, at least among some literate Americans. (WikiSource has excerpts from English as we speak it in Ireland from the period, which include "A great dandy wears his hat on three hairs of his head", further muddying the waters.)

Illustration from the same magazine

The illustration that accompanies the article shows a man with a hat firmly planted on his head, and while illustrations don't always conform to the text, either way it does not suggest anything about the "three hairs" trope.

So ... does anybody have a clue as to what having one's hat "on three hairs" might have meant, or how that expression came to be?

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  • I read those too. Hilarious. I always just took it as “worn just so”
    – Jim
    Jan 15, 2022 at 18:29
  • 1
    @Jim: Yes, that was my initial impression too. And while it worked to get me through the passage, I remain curious about its exact meaning and where it came from.
    – Robusto
    Jan 15, 2022 at 18:34

3 Answers 3

7

The original form of the expression may have been "set [or other verb] upon three hairs." In any event, a search for that wording turns up the following instance from Michael Peach, "The Unfair Proceedings of Mr. Prichard," part 4 of The Case of Mr. Michael Peach: or, A Faithful Relation of the Hardships He Has Lately Met With at Dartmouth (1714):

When I came out towards the Door, and thro' meer Inadvertency cover'd my Head, Mr. Prichard fell out with that innocent dumb Creature my Hat, profess'd he did not value me nor my Hat, no, my Hat cock'd up with three Corners and set upon three Hairs ; and because I declar'd, I had worn it before as worthy Persons as himelf, he, in a great Fury, flung the Door after me, so that had I not stepp'd pretty nimbly out of my Enemy's Quarters, he must needs have hurted my Legs.

...

'Twill be a vain Thing for Mr. Prichard to betake himself to his old Shifts, to stand behind the Curtain and whisper out his Mischief against me ; to perswade his best Friends, but my deadly Enemies to pelt me with scandalous Libels and Remonstrances ; and at the same to pretend to the World, he has a hearty Affection for me, should be glad to see me at his House, is ready to do me any Favour, and nothing grieves him so much as that I carry my self so strange towards him, will scarce speak to him, or move my Hat from three Hairs when I see him : For, let him give as much Proof, that all these Pretences of Kindness are real and sincere, as, I have, that they are meer Sham and Hypocrisie.

Although the printing of this piece that Google Books reproduces doesn't include a publication date, the entry for it at WorldCat.org confirms that it appeared in 1714. Evidently Peach was a curate for Mr. Prichard, serving as minister of St. Petrox, and master of the free school in Dartmouth, Devon.

Still, this instance is an outlier, as the next-earliest instance of the expression I've been able to find is the one for "stands ... on three hairs" from 1791, cited in Greybeard's answer. Then comes a gap of 17 more years before the 1817 example of "sittin' on three hairs" from Lady Sydney Morgan, also cited by Greybeard.

The phrase begins to appear with much greater frequency in the early 1820s. Following are nine instances from the period 1820–1828.

From John Stobbs, "Moore's Coach," in The Newcastle Magazine (November 1822):

I fully expected that my presence would have made a more than ordinary stir in the town, but in this I was mistaken. I exhibited myself after breakfast at the door of my lodging house, dashingly attired in a superfine black coat and waistcoat, kersimere breeches, and top boots shining brilliantly with Turner's jet black ; but the people seemed quite destitute of curiosity, for half-pay officers, coal-heavers, and attornies' clerks, the last with their long small white fingers, carefully incased in thick strong gloves from the rays of the sun, passed by without deigning to throw the slightest glance on these splendid habiliments of mine, which in Alnwick would have occupied all eyes and tongues for a whole sabbath-day. I set my new superfine London beaver hat upon three hairs, and stood in as bold and commanding an attitude as possible, but ll to no purpose—Stobbs was not noticed.

From "Prince's Street," in The Edinburgh Magazine (1823):

On Prince's Street the quill-drive drives his hack, / And clerk with chapeau tott'ring on three hairs, / And ladies having riding-habits walk, / And Provosts huge and heavy as night-mares, / And Dowagers with footmen at their back, / And breechless Celts, choakful of Highland airs, / Upon whose heads, with bonnets, hold a seat, / Quills from goosetails, which prove extremes may meet.

From "The Rape of Joseph: A Mock Heroic Poem" (1825):

With graceful figure—bilious, pale, and thin, / With "silk" superbly tied beneath the chin, / With brown surtout, enbutton'd on his hip, / And marks of wine and kisses on his lip: / With hat ensconc'd upon three hairs aside, / While the full curls are frizz'd beneath it wide; / With corset round his his small and pencile waist, Screw'd and stitch'd up—all languid lac'd and brac'd; / Enperfum'd with "J. Rigge's" most rosy roses. / While the op'd vest the diamond broach discloses.

From Henry Graves, "A Letter on Taste, Judgment, and Rhetorical Expression," in An Essay on the Genius of Shakespeare (1826):

Come forth thou man whom everybody sees, and nobody admires. Thou who triest to please every body, and yet pleasest nobody. There, thou art walking up Bond Street, with the neatest stock, the neatest coat, the neatest summer waistcoat, and the brightest "Day and Martin" on thy shoes. Switch or whip in thy hand (thou conshumate rogue, though thou has never crost a horse) spur, perhaps, on thy heel, though thou never has used it—glove dangling in thy hand—a neat coloured kid glove en dishabille—thy hat balanced exquisitely on three hairs, and a smicky smacky, lack-a-daysical "how d'do" on thy pretty lips (the Lord love it!) with a super-exquisite bow bestowed on the first Cyprian that thou meetest.

From William Halpin, "Forenoon at Cheltenham (From the Diary of a Dandy): The Levée," in The Cheltenham Mail Bag; Or, Letters [in Verse] from Gloucestershire (1826):

Nine o'clock.—Am vastly flurried— / Ne'er can dress when too much hurried. / Where's the glass? pray leave the light— / Heaven be praised! I'm not a fright. / —Nearly done—one parting glance— / Wondrous how my charms advance! / —Shoes that creak harmonious airs, / Hat that sits upon three hairs, / Trowsers splendid! frock divine!— / Issue forth at half past nine.

From R. Emery, "Newcastle Wonders; or, Our Hackney Coach Customers," in A Collection of Songs, Comic, Satirical, and Descriptive, Chiefly in the Newcastle Dialect (1827):

One day, being cram'd wi' fat flesh an' strang beer, / Left some friends at the Cock, an' away he did steer, / Wiv his hat on three hairs, through Wheat Market did stride, / When a Coachman cam up, an' said—Sir, will ye ride? / Gee, ho, Dobbin, &c.

From Gerald Griffin, "Card Drawing," in Tales of the Munster Festivals (1827):

Now and then, too, a pig-jobber, distinguished by his weather-proof air, his ponderous frieze great coat, with standing collar, forming a strong wall of defence up to the very eyes—his wide waste of cape, and his one spur fastened upon the well-greased brogue, vouchsafed a "'Save you kindly," as he trotted by; and a carman, seated side-wise on the back of a horse, (whose bony ribs bespoke him innocent of the luxury of oats)-with his feet on the shaft, a cart-whip tied sashwise about his person from shoulder to hip, a dingy straw-hat flung "on three hairs" of his head, heavy woollen waistcoat, bundle-cloth shirt thrown open at the neck, and light streamers of gray riband fluttering rakishly at the knees of his corduroy small clothes,—hospitably invited him to take a seat on the corner of his car, loaded as it was with full-bounds of butter, or bgs of oats for the inland markets.

From Lady Sydney Morgan, The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys: A Notional Tale, volume 1 (1827):

"De viv waw," repeated Captain O'Mealy, removing his large cocked hat from three hairs on the left side of his head, to three hairs on the right (a motion that always expressed the Captain's perplexity).—"De viv waw: well, the women of quality are the 'very queens of the dictionary,' as Sir Lucius says ;" and looking round he found to his infinite satisfaction that the "young gentleman" had disappeared.

A little Sixtus Quintus in his way, his [the archdeacon's] air became as papistical, as his infallible pretensions : and whoever saw him, mounted upon his ecclesiastical haquenée, ambling through the streets of of St. Grellan, saw the most faithful copy of an Italian Monsignore ever exhibited beyond the Roman corso :—all purple and pertness, pious priggery and foppish formality, with a beetling brow, and the best flapped hat that ever was perched upon three hairs of the erect head of a high, haughty, and overbearing churchman,—the genius of caricature could have added nothing to the picture.

From "Original Correspondence, (Paris Oct. 26)," in The London Literary Gazette (November 1, 1828):

The season for seeing fashionable loungers and swaggerandos has commenced: this description of irresistibles generally honour the garden of the Tuileries at four o'clock, and parade up and down the beau walk with swing-swang gait, to attract the regards of rich mammas with jolies demoiselles, who,they flatter themselves, must fall victims to their slender waists, hat on three hairs, cravat à l'Anglaise, bright buttons, and new gloves.

The image suggested by the idea of perching a hat on or from three hairs is that it is barely attached to the person's head at all—taking what might be described as a "rakish tilt" to an absurd extreme. This interpretation finds some support in Thomas M'Combie, The Convict (A History)," in Symmond's Colonial Magazine and East India Review (March 1847):

At last he [Joe] turned down a narrow street, until he came to a low tavern, considerably dirtier and more noisy than any we had hitherto passed : this appeared to hit the taste of Joe, as I saw him feel his pockets, to find, I suppose, whether thee was enough left in those greasy repositories to enable him to indulge in a glass of rum. This scrutiny was apparently attended with success, as I saw him shell out some coin, although I was not near enough to be aware of what value. Joe set his dirty straw hat so far on one side , that it appeared to hang suspended from three hairs, and adding a double portion of blustering consequence to his manner, walked to the door and disappeared.


Conclusions

The notion of setting a hat "on three hairs" may originally (that is, in the early eighteenth century) have referred to placing a three-cornered hat very light on one's head—so lightly that each corner rested on a single hair. In the early nineteenth century, however, the phrase "on [or from] three hairs" seems to have alluded to wearing a hat cocked to such a degree that it was practically falling off the wearer's head. This, evidently, was a style among dandies of the time, as most instances of the phrase from the period 1821–1828 involve descriptions of fops or foppish behavior.

As to where the expression originated, it is difficult to say. Michael Peach used it in Devon in 1714; Lady Sydney Morgan used it in 1791 in Dublin, Ireland, and again (twice) in 1826. Two early instances of the expression, from 1822 and 1827, are from Newcastle. Another comes from Gloucester, and another from London. And The Edinburgh [Scotland] Magazine includes an instance in 1823. So fairly early sightings range across much of England, as well as Dublin and Edinburgh.

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  • Splendid research. The phrase had obviously descended the social scale and changed implication when I heard it in the 1950s.
    – Anton
    Jan 17, 2022 at 8:02
  • 1
    Once again, thanks, Sven.
    – Robusto
    Jan 17, 2022 at 15:51
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The earliest I can find it is in an anonymous pamphlet published in 1791, "A Poetical Satire on the Times" Page 61

When you see him in the street you see his airs, / His hat like a rake stands just on three hairs,

There is also a French Fairy Tale "Les trois cheveux d'or du diable" - The Devil's Three Golden Hairs. These were the only hairs he had and were on the very top of his head.

Then there is

1817 France - Lady Sydney Morgan Page 90 "Monsieur le général," ( exclaimed the baron, placing his little hat on three hairs of his toupet) pas besoin d'être militaire pour pensir ainsi"

and later

1890 J. Service Thir Notandums 77 His wee three-cornered hat sittin' on three hairs like a bit midden cock on his heid.

There are plenty of examples but the meaning always seems to be - "on the top of his head" and none of the examples seem to be complimentary.

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I heard this fifty years ago as a way of saying that the man is bald. If he has a hat on three hairs, there are no others supporting the hat, so he is necessarily bald.

If you ask "Why three?", it may be because three supports are needed for an object to stay upright in a three-dimensional world: a chair with four legs is stable, a stool with three legs is stable; but a stool with two legs falls over. Hence, three is the minimum number of hairs needed if they are to be imagined to support a hat without its touching anything else.

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