European everyday life around 1800

Dr Seán Williams


Upheaval in an age of art

The end of the eighteenth century was a time of upheaval. There was not only the French revolution, but also the industrial revolution and, following the Enlightenment, there had been an intellectual revolution as well.

The advent of ‘modernity’ saw the birth of the properly political citizen, the powerful customer, the popular philosopher, and above all: the self-made, self-educated subject.

There was a new consciousness of the individual and of individual consciousness. All of this was expressed in an age of art: because this time was not only about the Enlightenment, but was the beginning, too, of European Romanticism.


The hairdresser's story

Seán is currently writing a cultural history of modernity since the eighteenth century, told as a biography of the hairdresser.

The word hairdresser was coined in eighteenth-century England; the character was also called the coiffeur and friseur, terms that passed through French, English, German and other vocabularies in the same period.

Seán’s next book, under contract with Reaktion, narrates and illustrates the story of this social figure since the eighteenth century, showing that the hairdresser’s history is shaped in no small part by its history of representation: in literature, opera, and film.

‘Literary’ sources are especially important because many of the more empirical, everyday ones are no longer extant, or do not reveal much. The history of the hairdresser’s representation, meanwhile, performs this character’s development in modern culture since the eighteenth century entertainingly and — most importantly — in a critical way.

Seán is available to give talks on this subject, and on many other quirky topics from the long eighteenth century.


Radio, articles and books

Read articles and listen to a selection of Seán’s radio programmes, which explore how the big names from literature and philosophy around 1800 were as concerned with major changes in everyday life as an ordinary local vicar, hairdresser, apothecary… or proud poodle-owner.

Pooch epistles – A little history of lapdogs

A history of the lapdog from the 18th century to the present day.
Pooch epistles: BBC Radio 3

Proms Plus: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Presenter Seán Williams discusses Beethoven the man. Through a series of readings we learn what inspired the composer’s work.
Beethoven the man: BBC, Arts & Ideas series

Why bling booms when austerity rises

Dr Seán Williams examines why luxury has fascinated and enraged from the 18th century to today.
Why bling booms when austerity rises: The Guardian

Listen: The enduring contradictions of luxury

Visiting fine hotels and expensive boutiques, Seán Williams seeks to understand what constitutes luxury and why it’s so problematic.
BBC Radio 3: Exploring luxury

Liechtenstein, the magic princedom

Seán Williams explores Liechtenstein, one of the smallest countries in the world.
Liechtenstein feature: The Economist 1843

Rambling Reflections: On Summers in Switzerland and Sheffield

In the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Philipp Moritz ­– from the peace of Lake Biel to the rugged Peaks – Seán Williams considers the connection between walking and writing.
Article: Rambling Reflections

Listen: The rise and fall of the hairdresser

Seán Williams considers the depiction of hairdressers in prints and prose and the role they have played in society, from ETA Hoffman to Balzac and beyond.
The rise and fall of the hairdresser: New Generation Thinkers, episode 5 of 5

Listen: A sentimental journey

Seán Williams rereads Laurence Sterne’s 1768 travel book, talks to novelist Philip Hensher, and to Nick Hunt about about walking Europe’s winds.
A sentimental journey on BBC Radio 3, Free Thinking series

Listen: Louisa Egbunike and Sean Williams

Louisa Edbunike and Seán Williams discuss Afrofuturism and German Lieder.
Louisa Edbunike and Seán Williams: BBC Radio 3

Listen: Proms Extra – Sentimentality

Seán Williams joins a panel to discuss Friedrich Schiller’s essay On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry and what it means to be sentimental in that period.
Sentimentality: BBC Radio 3, Arts & Ideas series

ETA Hoffmann and the Hairdresser around 1800

Article by Seán M Williams. Free to read and share.
ETA Hoffmann and the Hairdresser: Taylor & Francis Online

Pretexts for Writing – German Romantic Prefaces, Literature, and Philosophy

Buy Seán’s latest book on the period around 1800.
Book details

Dr Seán Williams

Seán Williams is a Senior Lecturer in German and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield. Sean is an expert on German and Comparative Literature, especially of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Before coming to Sheffield in 2015, he taught German and comparative literature at the University of Bern in Switzerland. His current book project looks at cultural history since the eighteenth century through the prism of the figure of the hairdresser. Seán Williams publishes in English and in German and is a regular contributor to radio (in both the UK and abroad), and his research has also appeared on television.

Seán was named a BBC New Generation Thinker in 2016. He has appeared on BBC television and frequently speaks on radio – in the UK and abroad, in English and German. He writes for general audiences in magazines such as BBC History and History Today, and the newspapers The Guardian and Neue Zürcher Zeitung, among others.

Get in touch

If you have any questions or feedback, please contact Seán:


Twitter: @WiggishHistory