Outlasting the Grave: Vintage Hair Mementos

-appeared in New England Antiques Journal,   2015

“Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials, and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend, we may almost look up to heaven and … say, I have a piece of thee here.”  Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1855.


People have long believed that human hair, the stuff of lore and legends, bears a person’s essential essence. Through the years, the pious venerated the hair of saints and mothers cherished toddler’s curls. Sweethearts exchanged locks of hair, weaving them into elaborate true-love knots, symbols of love and fidelity. After all, what gift is more heartfelt than a bit of yourself?

Hair, like love, outlasts the grave. It has been found, unaltered by time, on ancient Egyptian mummies, and embedded in funereal balls of clay. Greek and Roman mourners practiced funereal hair-offering as well. The earliest examples of European mourning jewelry, however, date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when well-to-do bereaved presented mourners with engraved rings featuring death’s-head, crossbones, and other remember-you-will-die- motifs.

Mourning rings, Which often featuring wisps of the deceased’s hair woven through their hollow channels, gained popularity in England after the beheading of Charles I in 1649 (Julian calendar). They not only expressed grief and royalist support, but also their bearer’s wealth and status.

Preparation was extensive. To remove dirt and grease, hair was first boiled in soda water, then dried, and sorted by length. Depending on the piece desired, it was either table-worked in three-dimension or palette-worked, flat.

In table work, strands of hair were divided into bundles of ten, twenty, or thirty strands as needed, then knotted and weighted with lead bobbins. This prevented tangling and maintained the required tension. Next, all the bundles were attached to a round braiding table that featured a hole in its center. In this was placed either a firm object or a hollow wooden mold.

Bit by bit, hand over hand, the hair bundles were braided or woven around the mold. When complete, the hair-covered form was removed, then boiled and dried. Finally, the creation was unmolded, ready for mounting.

Palette work actually encompassed several techniques. In one, strands were laid flat on glue-covered paper, cut into shapes, then pieced together to form elaborate scenes, large and small, which were displayed under glass. In another, hair was snip-snipped or crushed into a powder, then sprinkled, like glitter, over wet-glue designs or images. In flatwork, locks were stiffened with egg white, then carefully combed in one direction. Once dried, they were cut into tiny segments, then formed into delicate, textured designs.

Most pieces, due to their intricate designs, required great lengths of hair. A bracelet, for example, required a bundle of two hundred strands at least twenty-four inches long. A ring required a bundle of a hundred strands at least eighteen inches long. So by the 1850s, merchants plied markets, festivals, and fairs across France and Germany, offering girls trinkets and trifles for their locks. Fine, even-textured, glossy, lengthy tresses often fetched thrice the price of silver.

Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, hair, a symbol of life, once again became associated with death. Queen Victoria, his widow, not only went into deep mourning, but also required the entire English court to mourn with her. Bereaved commoners soon followed her lead. Along with gutta-percha beads and black crosses, many accessorized their somber mourning outfits with professionally made remembrance brooches, worn near the heart.

Hair snake brooch, traditional symbol of eternal love, courtesy, Leila Cohoon, Leila’s Hair Museum, Independence, Mo.

Many of these, rimmed in black and featuring poignant inscriptions of grief, display single locks of natural, twisted, or plaited locks encircled with seed pearls to signify tears. Others feature funereal images, like tombs, urns, cypresses, and weeping willows, painted with pulverized hair mixed with sepia ink, a brown pigment derived from cuttlefish. Wearers were comforted that their dear departed were near.

Over time, Victorian hair jewelry became high fashion–sentimental, decorative art created with anonymous locks and worn by all. “Prince of Wales” brooches, which display feathered curls under glass, and snake brooches, symbolizing eternal love, were great favorites. So were hair stick pins, locket rings, cufflinks, drop earrings, watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets. Brooches featuring hair-component images of children and people in their Sunday best, and sweethearts on one side with reverse swirls of woven locks, were favorite birthday and holiday gifts. Some, set in gold, featured citrines, garnets, rubies, and diamonds. The French were also known for their fine mourning jewelry.

European “examples of ornamental jewellery… work in hair… displaying much good taste and artistic skill, ” were featured at the 1853 New York World’s Fair. [quoted from A Day in the New York Crystal Palace, see https://archive.org/details/dayinnewyorkcrys00rich%5D This art gained popularity, however, during the Civil War, which claimed over half a million lives. Yanks and Rebs alike clipped strands of hair, leaving them with loved ones as they set off to battle. Should they perish, these locks, tucked in keepsake rings or lockets, became sentimental reminders of loves lost.

Eventually hair work became an inexpensive, enjoyable parlor pastime, often shared among friends. Campbell’s Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work (1867), with over a thousand illustrated patterns and directions, was a favorite source of inspiration. So was Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular American women’s magazine that, through the eighteen-eighties, featured directions for favorites like hair finger rings, shawl pins, purses, bookmarks, scent bottles, and riding whips. Alternately, women ordered hair work kits and ready-made pieces from local catalogs, or custom work from professionals in London or New York.

Exchanging hair tokens, as of old, was the perfect way to celebrate love and affection.

Sweethearts, in lieu of photographs, commonly fastened hair love knots to sentimental cards or wove strands through lacy valentines. Friends embellished sentimental letters and poems with their ringlets. Schoolgirls pasted classmates’ curls in autograph or friendship albums, alongside names, verses, water colored flowers, cutwork hearts, linen labels, or scraps of ribbon.

Amanda C [?], Emma May Creamer, Hannah Schaub, Eug [?] Dif [?], inherited hair album, 1863. Courtesy www.hairworksociety.org, Deborah Walters, private collection.
Amanda C [?], Emma May Creamer, Hannah Schaub, Eug [?] Dif [?], inherited hair album, 1863. Courtesy http://www.hairworksociety.org, Deborah Walters, private collection.

 Women, traditionally keepers of family history, created genealogy hair albums. One dating back to 1863, the height of the Civil War, contains strands of intricately braided , embroidered, or woven hair of more than a hundred people. Each entry also includes a poetic tribute, rendered in beautiful, but faded calligraphy. Though of these people have the same last names, Deborah Walters, who owns the album, found them all unfamiliar. By studying inherited genealogy files, scouring archives, and locating tombstones, however, she eventually traced most to two neighboring counties in Ohio. In the process, she not only discovered connections between one entry and the next, but also traced many to herself. She also identified a lock of her great-grandmother’s hair.

Many women also enjoyed collecting short strands of hair from acquaintances and members of social groups and their churches. By following the gimp and fold technique, looping them around flexible gold gimp (French) wires, then folding or twisting them to resemble leaves or flowers, they created appealing parlor pieces, friendship wreaths.

Hannah Margaret Gilbert, schoolgirl hair album, Gettysburg, Penn., 1863, year of the famed battle. Courtesy Cindy and Wolf Spring, private collection.
Hannah Margaret Gilbert, schoolgirl hair album, Gettysburg, Penn., 1863, year of the famed battle. Courtesy Cindy and Wolf Spring, private collection.

Over generations, women also created immensely popular, three-dimensional mourning wreaths, which feature “flowers” fashioned from locks of hair removed from heads of the deceased. When a fair number of “flower souls” had accumulated, they were often adorned with ribbons, bits of jet, and pearlized beads, then bound together on cloth-covered wire forms. These multi-hued “cemeteries” were usually displayed in shadow boxes or deep silk or velvet frames. Many of these works-in-process remained open at the top, like lucky horseshoes. Most, lacking identification or documentation, offer no clue to their creators, nor whom they commemorate. Others note dates on frames or, deep inside, feature tiny numbered labels that correspond to lists of identifying information.  Sentimental hair jewelry and mementos fell out of favor, both in the US and England, in the early twentieth century. Considered morbid and old-fashioned, many pieces were relegated to trunks in dusty attics. Most look today exactly as they did when they were created.

Hair wreaths and high-end jewelry can be found in antique shops, at auction, and online. While high-end pieces may run between several hundred to thousands of dollars, simpler ones are often far less costly.

Leila’s Hair Museum, located in Independence, MO, boasts five hundred wreaths and over two thousand pieces of jewelry. The Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center, in Northampton, MA, as well as the Historic New England Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, both in Boston, hold collections  as well.



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