Notes From The Frontier
1800's Human Hair Funeral Art
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
The classic O. Henry’s Christmas story, “The Gift of the Magi,” is a tale about the glory of a woman’s hair. A very poor newlywed couple in the late 1800s cannot afford to give each other a Christmas gift. They both sacrifice their most precious possession for the other: The wife cuts short her beautiful long hair and sells it (for Victorian weaving arts) and buys her husband a gold chain for his watch. The unknowing husband sells his watch to buy his new wife hair combs for her glorious long hair! The Victorians not only cherished hair, they fetishized it.
As early as the 1400s in Europe, creating hair art to memorialize the dead began, especially because epidemic and plagues took such a high toll on children. Beginning in the 1600s, the Swedish began plaiting hair as a decorative folk art and that tradition was carried on among Scandinavian pioneers in the America. In the 1800s, as well as centuries before, a woman’s hair was her glory. And it was held in high esteem in other ways, cropped from dead loved ones to make memorial wreaths, hair “trees,” brooches, bracelets, and other adornments, so a piece of their loved ones would remain with the living beyond the grave and death. It may seem macabre to us today.
But, Victorians and, especially pioneers braving the frontier, were intimately acquainted with death. By some estimates, one out of ten pioneers died on the Oregon Trail going West. And the child mortality rate in 1850 was nearly one in five. The Civil War, too, brought wide-spread death and touched nearly every family in North and South. When family members died, the family bathed and dressed the bodies and often laid them out on the kitchen table or in the parlor. Death photography was common and often the only photograph of the deceased a family had.
Hair was cherished and most every Victorian woman grew up learning needle arts. So, It was not so odd that a loved one—usually a woman—would crop hair from their dead child or family member to save and embroider into a small memorial, a wreath to frame or a pendant she could wear in remembrance. This basic emotional impulse blossomed into a spectacular decorative art in the 1800s that was practiced widely and became a way of not only memorializing, but glorifying, a lost loved one.
Queen Victoria gave pieces of jewelry made from her hair as gifts to her children and grandchildren, as well as friends. Napoleon famously wore his watch on a chain fob made from the hair of his wife, Empress Marie Louise. But the practice became popular among the poor and immigrant pioneers, too, since many died with few worldly possessions but the shirt on their back and the hair on their head. And what better memento, for though flesh rots to bone, then to nothing, hair holds its form and color for centuries and beyond and is as fine and pliable as silk thread.
By the mid-1800s, hair art was considered an “elegant accomplishment” and fashions were worn in the hair, at the neck, ears, wrist and ring fingers, mens’ cuffs or cravats, as chains, shawl pins, purses, pencil cases, bookmarks, scent bottles, and riding crops. Lugubrious parlors and sparse pioneer cabins alike were decorated with wreaths, samplers and “trees” of hair.
The popular Godey's Lady's Book began to feature monthly instructions for hair art in its 1850 issues and wrote: "Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting 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 compare notes with angelic nature — may almost say: 'I have a piece of thee here.'"
In 1850, the popular Godey's Lady's Book began to feature monthly instructions for hair art for its audience and wrote: "Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting 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 compare notes with angelic nature — may almost say: 'I have a piece of thee here.'
Not only did hair art provide a lasting and poignant means of remembering lost loved ones, it was a practice that helped women develop their “feminine attributes” of patience, perseverance, attention to detail, artful sensibilities, and emotional sensitivity in their domestic duties and family rearing.
Hair art processes were extremely laborious and delicate. The hair was washed first in soda to remove grease and dirt, then bundled in groups of 10, 20 or more hair strands tied to “bobbins,” essentially weights. Most hair work was created around a wire, pencil or other form. Then hair strands were knitted, crocheted, braided, or netted around the forms. When completed, the hair on the form was boiled to “fix” it, then removed very patiently from the mold.
The 1800s also used hair in other artistic ways besides weaving, embroidery and needlepoint. People pulverize the hair of lost loved ones into a pigment, then would paint mourning scenes commemorating the deceased.
Another technique, called “palette work, laid the hair flat and woven into patterns that are then cut into stencil shapes and adhered to a field of paper or cloth.
Victorian hair art has become collectible at fine art auctions and the most artful examples are exhibited at museums and folkart galleries around the country. There are even Victorian hair art museums! One called Leila Cohoon’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, displays more than 400 hair wreaths and 2,000 spectacular pieces of jewelry. Some of her pieces date back to the 1600s.
The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has a fine collection of Victorian hair art. In 2017, the museum collaborated with the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York on an exhibit, “Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work.” The show did a great deal to showcase a Victorian artform that had been long shrouded. Today, Victorian hair art is showing up at antique and art auctions and bringing substantial sums. And art and living history museums are also recognizing the lost art.
The artform became so popular in the 1800s, that women began collecting copious amounts of hair from their living children and family members in anticipation of death, so that they would have enough hair to create a fitting funeral memento! The poet Sylvia Plath wrote, “Dying is an art.” The Victorians took that sentiment to heart in spectacular and excruciatingly detailed fashion. They loved John Donne’s famous poem that began: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so....”
Hair art, in a sense, put a lovely face on death. It preserved a loved one and was a victory over ubiquitous death in the 1800s.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted December 10, 2019 on Facebook