Hair is something that is incredibly personal and unique. We can change our hair—cut it, style it, dye it—but the fact remains that our hair is intrinsically tied to who we are. It is a part of our body and can easily be used to identify us, just like any other feature. There is a variety of hair in the museum alone: Mary has short brown hair, Ann Marie has medium-length auburn hair, I have…no hair—but the peach fuzz on my scalp is dishwater blonde!
Hair doesn’t degrade over time like other materials due to its high percentage of keratin, a protein that is incredibly strong and damage resistant. This means that hair can potentially last hundreds or even thousands of years given the proper environment. Mummies have been found with full heads of hair because of this protein.
Its strength and durability mean that hair is an excellent substitute for other fibers. Since at least the Middle Ages, members of the elite classes have been using the hair of their loved ones for jewelry or other decorative arts, falling under the umbrella term of Hairwork. Art History Professor Geoffrey Batchen states in his book, “Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance,” that “hair, intimate and yet easily removed, is a convenient and pliable stand-in for the body of the missing, memorialized subject.”
Locks of hair were woven into intricate designs, sometimes combined with several other deceased persons’ hair to create a larger remembrance, or Memento Mori (Latin, “remember you must die”), piece. We have a beautiful mourning wreath in our museum following this tradition. Hair could also be ground into a powder and incorporated into paint. Popular mourning motifs included women weeping at graves, cherubs, urns, and floral displays.
The practice gained more popularity outside of the aristocracy during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria wore a lock of her deceased husband’s hair in a locket above her heart as part of her decades-long mourning, as well as a locket-style bracelet of her nine children’s hair on her wrist. The popularity of the art wasn’t just a result of the average person wanting to emulate the queen, though. Death was an ever-present reality of life in the Victorian era: From disease to infant mortality to wars, mourning became a staple of culture. In America, the massive death toll of the Civil War in particular fueled this tradition.
Hairwork wasn’t only for remembering the dead. It was just as popular to collect the hair of living loved ones to create a piece that would keep part of them nearby when they otherwise might be far apart. Family trees were crafted out of hair, lovers kept a lock of their beloved’s hair in lockets, friends’ hair was woven into intricate patterns to accompany poems. In 1853 poet Emily Dickinson sent a lock of her hair to her friend Emily Ford, remarking that, “I shall never give you anything again that will be half so full of sunshine as this wee lock of hair […] I must have one of yours—Please spare me a little lock sometime when you have your scissors, and there is one to spare.”
Middle and upper-class women took up this skill much like they would embroidery or painting, a show of one’s skill while simultaneously exhibiting the time they had available to devote to such a meticulous craft. Many books were published detailing how to create specific hairwork designs, such as 1867’s “Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work,” by Mark Campbell. In this book, I was able to find the pattern for another piece we have in the museum: a bracelet, in this case. It is an intricate design, delicate and fragile-looking despite the strength of the hair used.
Businesses arose to meet the demand for hair jewelry, though just as soon as they arose, so did the concerns that the hair being used wasn’t that of a customer’s specific loved one. A 1908 Sears catalogue confirmed these fears to be warranted, and even went as far as to give the disclaimer: “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.”
Over time, the popularity of hairwork began to lose its original meaning. The hairwork market became oversaturated with businesses offering the service, commercializing a previously deeply intimate practice. Women sold their hair to these businesses, which would then be exported to other countries for use in their hair jewelry to provide a variety of different colors for the pieces. Hairwork became a fashionable accessory instead of a tool of remembrance.
These businesses, which would have been at their height in the 1870s and 1880s, began to struggle by the late 1890s. At the turn of the 19th century, society started to look back on certain Victorian practices as excessively morbid and overly sentimental, among them being the collecting of hair.
The biggest contributing factor to the decline of hairwork, however, was the start of World War I. Women were joining the workforce, and as such they had less time to devote to time-consuming crafts like hairwork. It was one’s duty to focus on helping their country win the war. It was also expected that as much money as possible would go towards the war effort, so less expense was put towards the intricate and prolonged mourning rituals of the previous decades. After the war, women’s suffrage proved to be the final death knell for hairwork, as women’s role in society evolved from simply taking care of the home.
Hairwork is no longer the massive fad it used to be, but there is still a handful of artists and historians keeping the practice alive, combining modern resources and traditional techniques to bring hairwork into the modern era. Beyond these artists, people still collect hair for sentimental reasons—baby’s first haircut, anyone? Though most may not wear it in jewelry or display it on walls anymore, hair is still regarded as something important and worth saving.
~ Grace Duxbury
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2019.