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Photo caption: Detail of locket on watch chain made of hair in the 1870s. (Sophienburg artifact collection)

Photo caption: Detail of locket on watch chain made of hair in the 1870s. (Sophienburg artifact collection)

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

“Hairstory” is a new and unusual exhibit opening in April at the Sophienburg Museum. The museum’s collection was scoured for artifacts of human hair. What? Yes, the museum has a collection of human hair artifacts that include jewelry, wreaths and saved first curls. You might think that odd, but even I have my kids’ first cut curls in tiny boxes in my dresser drawer. Long ago, that so tangible part of a loved one was also cherished but in much more creative ways.

Since the 17th century, a person’s hair has been treated with a special sentimentality. To give a beau a lock of your hair was a sometimes scandalous action; it was a secret declaration of love and promise. In the 18th century, people began keeping a lock of a child’s or spouse’s hair as a remembrance. In a time when death came quickly and often early, what mother would not find comfort in the sight and feel of a tiny curl from their dear one’s head?

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria went into deep mourning at the death of Prince Consort Albert. Her many-years-long grieving of him ushered in a new fashion of mourning. Those grieving wore black or dark colored clothing, armbands hats and bonnets. Gold jewelry was replaced by buttons and beads of black glass or jet (hardened, polished coal).

This fashion also gave rise to many hand-crafted ways to use the departed one’s hair. In gimp work, strands of hair were knotted on thread, twisted and looped around thin wires and then shaped into fanciful flowers and leaves to form bouquets and wreaths. These would be added to each time a family member passed away. Often, the wreaths would begin in the shape of a crescent with the top open to allow additions and reach up towards heaven. These fantastic and incredible creations were placed in shadow boxes to hang on walls or placed under glass domes to set on mantles or tables.

Jewelry, too, was carefully and painstakingly fabricated of human hair. Called table work, earrings were woven into acorn shapes or loops. Bracelets were braided into chains of hair and brooches were decorated with patterns, bows or flowers of hair. Tightly braided tubular or flat chains of hair took the place of men’s gold watch chains. These memorials replaced objects made of shiny metals and they allowed the memory of the deceased to actually be close enough to touch.

In the Sophienburg’s “Hairstory” exhibit you will find Erinnerungen or memories made of the hair of the then living as well. Locks of hair were given at the parting of friends or relatives and carefully pasted into small albums. Children’s curls were preserved in boxes (like mine!). Friends took strands of their hair and wove braids of them weaving their friendship in tokens that lasted past their lifetimes. While hair is organic, it lasts a long time before breaking down. In preparing the artifacts, I found out that old hair has a particular odor….

The peak era of decorative hair work was from the 1830s to 1910s. The craft pretty much died out by World War I; women had less time since they had to continue life without the help of their husbands. The fussiness and formality of the Victorian and Edwardian age gave way to “modern” thinking which brought about huge changes in clothing and home décor fashion.

Highlighted in the “Hairstory” exhibit are hair wreaths of old local families formed into bouquets, crescents and hearts. Colored ribbon and glass and metal beads are often included which add sparkle and life to the rather drab shades of black, brown and pale-yellow hair. These family wreaths, or Familienkränze, are essentially family trees made of hair flowers. These human hair creations share the stage with a wreath made from the hair of one family’s much-loved horses.

Jewelry examples include an enameled gold brooch featuring palette work. For this, the hair is woven and flattened and a resin is applied to stiffen it. Crisp shapes can then be cut out and placed under glass. The intricacy of this brooch and the other jewelry items are astounding. Just remind yourself of the kind of lighting the women were working under — and they were using strands of hair!

Each carefully preserved artifact testifies to the love of a family or a friendship long ago and keeps alive the memory of a child, a husband, a mom or a best friend. Odd? Weird? Yes, but also rather touching don’t you think?

The “Hairstory” exhibit will run from April to December 2022, Tuesday-Saturday, 9-4, at the Sophienburg Museum.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum Artifacts collection; www.nationalgeographic.com; www.artandobject.com; www.artsy.net; www.everhart-museum.org/; www.leilashairmuseum.net; www.atlasobscura.com