My wife’s family had hair jewelry – her great-grandmother’s hair and her grandmother’s jewelry – which we display every Christmas as part of our Victorian crafts exhibit. When tour-goers visit, they never fail to squirm at the idea of wearing a dead ancestor’s hair as a ring or bracelet. "Skeevy" is the word most often used to describe the tradition. The following is part of an essay on the subject written by Judy Knight.
From Hair to Eternity
By Judy Knight
Would you consider trimming your tresses – or those of a loved one – for posterity? You might have, if you’d lived long ago.
Victorians would shudder at some of our practices in this day and age, but one of their customs has the same effect on many of us today. Simply stated, the idea of weaving wreaths from hair of deceased relatives gives a lot of us “the willies.”
In the Victorian era, however, using hair to weave intricate wreaths for framing in shadow boxes and displaying on walls was accepted as a fitting tribute to a loved one. “Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials and survives us like love,” stated Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1860. Perhaps that best explains the appeal the practice had for the Victorians.
Aside from using it in wreaths and brooches for the solemn purpose of mourning, working with hair as a medium for artistic expression was a popular pastime in the 1860s and ‘70s. A three-dimensional work of art created for a shadow box might also commemorate another rite of passage, such as a betrothal. Hair could be gotten from one person, living or deceased, or from all the members of an entire family.
The process of working with hair was both painstaking and tedious. Sometimes bobbins would be used, similar to those employed in the making of lace. The hair was typically macramaed. Many of the more elaborate hair wreaths of the late 19th century incorporated china flowers with the strands of hair or intertwined hair with strands of shiny jet beads.
Another aspect of the creepy custom is the sexy/romantic one. Victorian women were devoted to long and elaborate hair as a symbol of their femininity. Men who were separated from their sweethearts could carry a little memento with them in the form of a watch chain made of their beloved's hair.
You can see an elaborate mourning cross, fashioned from human hair, in Mrs. Ralston’s bedroom on a tour of the Physick Estate.
Elan Zingman-Leith is a former curator and board member at MAC. He is an accomplished artist and he and his wife, Susan, own Leith Hall Bed & Breakfast on Ocean Street.