Charlie Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, “Hair is vitally personal to children. They weep vigorously when it is cut for the first time; no matter how it grows, bushy, straight or curly, they feel they are being shorn of a part of their personality.”
It is a feeling that adults must never entirely get over, either. How many of us have scrapbooks that contain a lock of our hair from when we were a baby or when we got our first haircuts? When you look at it does it bring back memories of your childhood? Of a time of youthful energy and innocence?
Ann Hull, director of the Franklin County (Pa.) Historical Society – Kittochtinny, tells a story of how she was doing genealogy research one time and among some family items, she found an envelope with a lock of hair in it. “It wasn’t labeled,” says Hull. “I have no clue who it belonged to. It could have been from my great-grandmother. I could have been from my aunt. I don’t know, but I wish I did to have that part of her.”
“Hair, detached from its original owner, could nevertheless stand in for that individual. Emotional repercussions that would otherwise be the result of the interaction between individuals could be triggered by the hair itself,” Helen Sheumaker wrote in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America.
Before these scrapbooks with locks of hair, there were hair albums.
“They were before photography became common,” says Hull. “This is how people remembered family and friends…with hair.”
The Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Mo., has six hair albums among its collection of hair art. Each has its own story that Museum Director Leila Cohoon researched. For instance, one book belonged to a woman in New York. Based on where the book is from and the morbid drawings throughout the book, Cohoon deduced the book was kept by an inmate at the women’s prison in the town. Each of the locks of hair in the book is from a person who came to visit her at the prison.
One of the things that characterize hair albums is the way that hair locks are presented. They don’t simply contain locks of hair taped into a scrapbook. These locks have been twisted into small braids and patterns.
“They’re not braided in ways that we know braiding today,” Cohoon said. The braids and weaving are more complex than the braids used nowadays.
Each lock is also identified with the name of the person to whom it belonged and sometimes a date or memory.
“It is a collection of intricate hair that was braided, embroidered, or woven and stitched into an album. Each sample has a tribute, usually in the form of a poem, done in beautiful, but faded calligraphy. It is dated 1865. It has two samples per page and there are over 80 individuals represented in the book. Many have the same last names. The hair of married couples is usually woven together,” wrote a woman on the Victorian Hairwork Society about a hair album that she inherited.
The crafted hair lock might also be identified with a mini portrait or a verse of poetry. However it was identified, it was done so in a way that meant something to the young woman who was creating the hair album. A woman wrote in 1834, as quoted in Love Entwined, that she had “always loved albums, much as they have been ridiculed… and it interests me to see the ardour of a young lady, when opening the gilt leaves, she finds there sentiments dedicated to her alone.”
Family Bibles have also been used as hair albums with locks of hair for each member of the family.
“It’s genealogy done with hair,” Cohoon said.
Most hair albums come from the 19th Century, though other hairwork dates back much further. Cohoon says that young women making hair albums had pretty much ended by the beginning of the 20th Century.
In their book Forgotten Tales of North Carolina, Tom Painter and Roger Kammerer note that hair albums were quite popular in the state in the late 1880’s, though even by then, it had begun to shift away from the more-labor intensive braiding. “The lock of hair would be tied with a blue ribbon and attached in an album. Over it would be written the name, age, eye color, date of receiving the memento and other personal remarks, which might or might not be complimentary, as the album was never to be seen by any other than feminine eyes,” Painter and Kammerer wrote.
As photography became more commonplace, the tradition of keeping hair albums all but died out. It eventually morphed into the keeping of locks of hair and maintaining of hair work or the crafting of jewelry from locks of hair.
Hair albums are part of a larger art form known as hairwork. Hairwork involves using hair to create wreaths, rings, brooches and other items. Learning hairwork involves skill that is learned.
Cohoon teaches classes in making hair wreaths. She has identified 30 techniques used in creating these wreaths. Cohoon knows 25 of them and is working to learn a 26th technique.
She has to figure them out herself because no directions on these skills exist. This has led her to write a book that provides instruction for how to do the various hair braids and weaves.
The benefit of using hair as a craft medium is not only that it provides a personal connection to the piece, but it does not decay.
“Everybody has hair,” Cohoon said. “It’s individual. It’s the one part of the body that does not go back to ‘dust to dust.’”
An article in AntiqueWeek by Susan and Jim Harran noted that hair has been seen as a symbol of life by many cultures over thousands of years. “Egyptian tomb paintings portray scenes showing pharaohs and queens exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love. In Mexico, Indian women kept hair combings in a special jar which was buried with their bodies so that the soul would not become tired looking for missing parts, and delay its passage to the other world,” the Harrans wrote.
Cohoon said that she has seen hairwork traced back to the 12th Century. “Some people think of hairwork as something that was done during the Victorian era, but actually it was finishing up by then,” Cohoon said.
As a commercial enterprise, hairwork is said to have begun in Sweden in the early 1800’s. Young girls in Vamhus, Dalarna, Sweden learned creative hair braiding and then traveled far and wide earning money that helped support their village during the winter months.
“Young girls would divide up into teams of three or four and travel to a country in Europe, learn the language and take their art with them,” the Harrans wrote. “The craft of hairwork spread throughout Europe. Beautifully detailed landscapes and floral designs were made by jewelers using human hair.”
For more information:
To find out more about hairwork, its history and its current state, you can visit the Victorian Hairwork Society at www.hairsociety.org or contact Cohoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.