Sunday, April 3, 2011

Victorian Hair Art: Part 3

Hopefully you’ve followed me around during my travels last summer when I discovered hair art which I wrote about in Part 1 and Part 2. 

In Part 3, I’m home and learning more about what this is all really about.

“Braided hair from family members surrounds the detailed history of the marriages and births within their family.”
Photo by Richard Gwin (Source)

There is quite a bit out there on the internet about Victorian Hair Art/Work.  It seems that prior to the age of craft stores galore and photographs, there was not a large amount of supplies available for handiwork.  That coupled with the sentimental value of a part of the human body that doesn’t rot, hair, means that people discovered a way to preserve a connection to one another by taking the hair and making into something tangible.  Something of value that spoke to the human heart about one’s connection to another human being.
Hair wreath’s were made from one person’s hair or more more than one for variety and color variations.  Some added beads.  They are constructed using wire or braiding the hair and shaping it.  Then they were most often mounted inside a shadow box lined with a fabric similar to that which lines coffins.  Hair wreath’s were made from hair taken usually while someone was still living. Although there are some that were not and some from the living and the dead combined.

“This shadow box with a picture of a girl in mourning is lined with material usually reserved for a coffin. The wreath apparently is made with hair from the girl and the girl's mother, who had died.”
Photo by Richard Gwin

Often times, hair was cut from a beloved after they died.  It was a remnant of them as a living being.  And it could be preserved.  Remember too, that once photography was invented, people often took photos of the deceased in order to remember them.  Seems strange to us now, in light of the fact that we can capture their image in photos, their movements in video and their voices in audio.  But, what if none of this was possible? It’s was the closest you could be to someone no longer living, to have a strand of their hair. 

“This picture shows how hair was used as lockets.”
Photo by Richard Gwin (Source)

Then there is hair jewelry.  Sometimes, young lovers were separated and a woman would braid her hair into a bracelet for her beloved to remember her with until her returned. More common was mourning jewelry.  A child, so very young, would die and hair was made into mourning rings.  Sometimes people would include it in their will that they wished to have jewelry made for certain people for mementos.  George Washington ordered no less than 5 mourning rings made from his hair.  Did you know that there are at least 3 extant samples of Thomas Jefferson’s hair?  Taken off his head after he died?

Thomas Jefferson’s Hair
Click image for source
(Click image for source)

“Thomas Jefferson's hair cuttings were taken on Jefferson's deathbed as keepsakes by his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and other family members. Three samples came to the Library of Congress in clearly identified envelopes with the papers of Jefferson. Martha wrote on one envelope: "My dear father Thomas Jefferson." The hair samples are cuttings without follicles and therefore are useless for DNA studies. Only the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation is known to have custody of additional cuttings of Jefferson's hair.” (Source: Library of Congress website)

There are still hair artist’s today. In fact, there is a Victorian Hairwork Society… and they have “Hairball Conventions”!  
Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. houses the Museum of Mourning Art in a building modeled after Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, “since it was Washington’s death that inspired American settlers to create and invest in mourning art.” (Museum of Mourning Art Website).

On YouTube I found a video, yes, I did, but I believe it’s the ONLY one on hair wreath’s.

There are even some hair wreaths on Ebay selling for $675-$895!  There must be some serious collectors out there. 

There’s also another museum exclusively with items made from hair – Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri.  Her website says “There are 159 wreaths and over 2,000 pieces of jewelry containing, or made of, human hair dating before 1900. For $3.00, the public in invited to look at these locks at Leila's Hair Museum.”

You’ll be amazed at the images you see if you do a Google search and select “images”. 

So, I hope that’s enough information for you about Victorian Hair Art!  I will continue to be intrigued by this most interesting curiosity.  It’s most intriguing isn’t it?  

I just happen to have a trip planned for next week in which I was going to visit both Mount Vernon and Arlington Cemetery as a part of it!  Now is that not just the most uncanny coincidence?  Perhaps I’ll have to deviate from the plan just a bit to visit the Museum of Mourning Art.

And publish an update post, of course!

©2010 Joanne Schleier - All Rights Reserved.


  1. I've seen a few pieces of mourning jewellery using hair, but nothing as spectacular as these! The shadow box is amazing. What a huge amount of work must have gone into making these pieces. I hope you get time to visit the Museum and update us further :-) Jo

  2. I have never heard of this. What an unusual way of remembering people. And you started in Wapello county? My Groff/Graff ancestors lived there for a while, and my ancestor Paul Groff's first wife Charlotte Blake was from there. Thanks for the very interesting posts!!

  3. @imagespast I did not get the chance to visit the Museum, unfortunately. You are right about the amount of time it must have taken. I would love to know the answer to that. I hate to say it, but it is a "dying" art form. Oh, that was bad!

  4. @ironhide781 That's what I said! I think that's why it fascinated me! Wapello county indeed. I have not come across your surnames in my research there. Small world, isn't it? Thanks for your comment!