As spooky season nears, we would like to highlight one of our more unusual collection pieces - a funerary hair wreath and set of hair earrings. MOAH’s hair wreath and earrings were donated by Barbara Hoover in the year 2000 (See Figures 1-6). This set is said to date to the early 1800’s (TD 20.105). So, why would anyone make jewelry items and artwork out of hair?
Hair art first started in the 17th and 18th century in England, and it reached a high in popularity during the Victorian era (1837-1901). Queen Victoria wore a hair necklace of her husband, Prince Consort Albert, when he passed which sparked interest in hair art (National Geographic). In the United States, hair art popularity grew with the high tolls of the Civil War. It became customary to make art from hair as a memorial for the deceased. Hair would be taken from the dead and used in jewelry, tokens, and hair wreaths. In addition to remembrance of the dead, such art was also made from hair of the living as tokens of friendship. For example, locks of hair were taken from friends and left in autograph books for sentimental remembrance. Hair art was a way to signal one’s sincerity in remembrance of someone both alive or dead, while also remaining in “fashionable style” (Smithsonian Magazine). Emily Snedden Yates, a special projects manager at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and co-curator of their 2018 exhibition “Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work”, stated that: “A lot of hair would be braided and then placed in a book and a poem would be written underneath it, or something describing their relationship with a person. It was really an ode to the person's essence” (Artsy).
Hair wreaths were often made in a horse-shoe shape made with wire and hair. The hair would also be formed into various shapes and patterns, such as flowers, which were added to the wreath (Everhart Museum). It has been speculated that the U-shape was used to symbolize the dead’s ascent upward to heaven (Everhart Museum) or because a horseshoe was a Victorian symbol of good luck (Sauk County Historical Society). MOAH’s hair wreath is shaped in a typical circular wreath design. In addition to arranging the hair in different swirls and knotted patterns, wood or glass beads, buttons, and seeds were also often included in the wreaths as adornment. When finished, wreaths would be mounted on silk or velvet backgrounds often in shadow box frames which were then hung in a family home in remembrance, becoming a form of a family tree. (Sauk County Historical Society).
Wreaths could contain hair from just one person or multiple family members and friends, with the newly deceased member’s hair placed in the center of the wreath (Everhart Museum). MOAH’s wreath, does contain a smaller bouquet section of hair in the center, which is likely from the newly deceased. Women were primarily responsible for making hair wreaths. Patterns for making hair wreaths would be sold in stores and regularly found in women’s magazines (National Geographic). A famous guide for doing hair work was published in 1867, called Self-Instructor and the Art of Hair Work (Self-Instructor and the Art of Hair Work), which can be viewed at this link: (http://archive.org/details/selfinstructori00campgoog/page/n12/mode/2up?view=theater) from Smithsonian Magazine. The book teaches how to create certain braid designs for artwork as well as examples of different hair art design patterns, from abstract shapes to full landscapes (See Figures 8-11).
After the Victorian era, the tradition of hair work faded. Historians have speculated that this change may have come from the advent of funeral homes, which removed death from being a home focus. Its decline can also be linked to changes in fashion as well as new ideas about hygienic practices (National Geographic). This creepy, but rather beautiful tradition has been revitalized in the creations of hobbyists. The Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York occasionally offers classes in hair wreath design for those interested in learning the craft. Still today, parents often keep a lock from their child’s first haircut. Those traditions bring back the memory of the Victorian hair art.
Figure 1: Barbara Hoover’s donated hair wreath (TD 20.105)
Figure 2: Detail of hair wreath braiding with wire rings embedded in
Figure 3: Detail of hair wreath braiding
Figure 4: Center bouquet in hair wreath
Figure 5: Detail of hair braiding and wire designs at top of wreath
Figure 6: Braided hair earrings
Figure 7: More abstract hair design from Morbid Anatomy Museum
Figure 8: Page 43 from Self-Instructor and the Art of Hair Work, 1867, depicting thick braided hair bracelets
Figure 9: Page 41 from Self-Instructor and the Art of Hair Work, 1867, depicting braided hair bracelets/necklaces
Figure 10: Page 15 from Self-Instructor and the Art of Hair Work, 1867, depicting braided hair pendants
Figure 11: Page 48 from Self-Instructor and the Art of Hair Work, 1867, depicting hair art designs, including flowers, abstract shapes, landscapes, friendship, and religious iconography
“The Curious Victorian Tradition of Making Art from Human Hair” by Allison Meier, The Curious Victorian Tradition of Making Art from Human Hair | Artsy
“Victorian Hair Wreaths”, http://www.everhart-museum.org/Collection/Wreath.htm
Morbid Anatomy Museum
“Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair” by Becky Little, Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair (nationalgeographic.com)
Sauk County Historical Society
“The Hair Wreath” by Bill Schuette, Home - Sauk County Historical Society (saukcountyhistory.org)
“Victorians Made Jewelry Out of Human Hair” by Rose Eveleth, Victorians Made Jewelry Out of Human Hair | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine
Self-instructor in the art of hair work, dressing hair, making curls, switches, braids, and hair jewelry of every description : Campbell, Mark, 19th cent : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive