Saturday, January 7, 2012

Mourning Art: Hair Work

Hair wreaths, the subject of one of the most popular posts on this blog, deserve more attention. In the next few posts, I'll be writing about hairwork & hair wreaths.

Like so many other quirks of Victorian society, we can credit the popularity of hair art (aka hairwork) during this time to Queen Victoria. Not only did the English queen help standardize many Victorian era mourning practices, she started a craze with hair tokens. When her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, Victoria spent the last 40 years of her life in deep mourning over the loss. To memorialize her beloved Albert, she carefully preserved locks of his hair and had the royal jeweler, Garrad, work the snippets into at least 8 different pieces of jewelry. She even reportedly required that her 8 year-old son wear "a Locket with beloved Papa's hair" around his neck. 

Brooch  of brown, basket-weave hair. From the Morning Glory Antiques & Jewelry website, which offers pieces like this for sale (this one is currently priced at $110).
But Victorians did not stop at jewelry. They found increasingly creative ways to turn hair into unexpected objects or to work precious locks into other forms of art. Between 1850 and 1916 strands of hair were woven, braided and shaped into baskets, tea pot sets, cups, mourning pictures of willow trees and urns, and even purses. Perhaps the most ridiculous item of all was the "full-length, life-size portrait of Queen Victorian, executed entirely in human hair" which "proved particularly popular" at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Alas, I have been unable to find a picture or drawing of this impressive sample of hairwork!
Hair flowers, created by wrapping hair around wire, were one form of hairwork--many flowers like these were required to create a hair wreath. On the paper below the flowers is written in pen: "Hair flowers. Probably made in 1845 or 1850." From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1986.27.2.
Nowadays, any reasonable person may ask: "Why did Victorians make all these different art pieces out of hair?" First and foremost, hair is a physical piece of the deceased, something that does not age, change or disintegrate over time like the rest of the human body does. This makes it a wonderful memorial and perfect for all of the mourning rites and practices of the day. Additionally, Victorian women created many different kind of fancy work--embroidery, painting, needlepoint, sewing, shellwork, beading and wax modelling are all examples. Hair was a perfect material to add to a woman's repertoire, since it could be woven, painted, shaped, sewn and otherwise adapted into all kinds of art forms. 
This beautiful, undated snippet of dark brown hair has been braided into a small circle, perhaps for later use in a piece of hairwork but most likely to simply serve as a souvenir. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1971.19.21.
A Victorian woman who was working on a hair wreath, hair brooch or other piece of hairwork could spend years collecting enough samples to complete her desired project. Pieces like the one pictured above could be gathered from a person at any age--for example, one lock of hair in the Pejepscot's collection is attributed to a 3 year-old, while another snippet came from an 18 year-old woman and was passed down to her granddaughter in 1883. Some professional hairworkers recommended using only "live hair, that is, hair from the head of a living person" for such work--advice that at least one Mainer listened to. In 1862 J.P. Ireland wrote to his son, who was serving in the 22nd Maine Infantry during the Civil War, that "Your mother says when your hair is long enough, to send her a lock, that she can put into a hair wreath."

Yet most hair art served as mourning art, and for many reasons hair was taken from the recently deceased's body. After all, not only was the living person no longer in need of their long tresses, but large sections of hair could be taken without affecting the person's sense of vanity. What more appropriate way to memorialize the dead by taking one last piece to remember them by?

Bell, C. Jeanenne. Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification & Values. Paducah, Kentucky: Collector Books, 1998.
Green, Harvey. The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
Hunter, D. Lyn. “A Victorian Obsession With Death: Fetishistic Rituals Helped Survivors Cope With Loss of Loved Ones.” Berkeleyan.
Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 39 (2011): 127-142.
Ofek, Galia. Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature & Culture. Burlington, Vermont. Ashgate Publishing Co., 2009.

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