Hair Art, mourning jewelry sentimental expressions of 1800s
"Oh Rhett - what will I do, I have no paintings, no photographs of you!" Scarlett said between sobs. Rhett answered in a soft confident tone. "My dear Scarlett, do not fret. Let me cut a lock of my hair for you. You can keep it close to you while I am away." Scarlett cried out with excitement, "Oh Rhett I love you! I will place your hair into my locket and keep it close to me always - as God as my witness!"
Of course, this scene never happened in Margaret Mitchell's Pultizer-winning novel Gone with the Wind, but it's not difficult to imagine that this type of scenario, giving one a locket of hair, was played out across the United States as husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and fiancés left their hometowns for the U.S. Civil War battlegrounds.
Indeed, a popular fad during the Civil War, among both men and women, was giving a tress of one's own hair to loved ones as tokens of affection, remembrance and love. By the late 1800s, this craze developed into an entire industry. There were many businesses and professionals that catered to the gathering, use and creation of human hair jewelry and hairwork; yes, real pieces of jewelry and works of art made from human hair!
Usually the hair was kept in a special compartment in the back of a brooch, locket or button or made into rings and watch fobs. Later, earrings, necklaces, bracelets made from human hair were worn by ladies of the day. Men wore cuff links, watch chains and buttons of hair belonging to their sweethearts or dear ones.
The late 1800s was an era where sentiment was considered a virtue. Displaying heartfelt emotions was commonplace. Hence, having a piece of jewelry or artwork made from your father's, husband's, fiancé's or child's hair was a time-honored practice. The Victorians regarded hair as one's crowning glory and the most delicate and lasting part of a person. This romantic nature gave rise to the idea of working with the hair of someone you loved was a sentimental expression and one that was encouraged and nurtured. These crafted works of human hair eventually became known as mourning jewelry.
From the 1860s through the 1900s, human hair braiding and weaving became a fine art and hairwork in general became a drawing room pastime. It was crafted or woven into works of art such as landscapes, art weavings, miniature art and wreaths. One could cut their hair and send it off to professionals who would then create whatever one desired. Another option was to pick up the latest issue of Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine to learn about the latest instructions, examples and patterns for hair jewelry or artwork.
Anyone interested in viewing an excellent example of hair art, the Fremont House on the Sharlot Hall Museum campus houses a hair wreath made by Caroline McCluer from 1856. Caroline died while in childbirth; this hair wreath is displayed as a memorial to her. Later, Caroline's daughter, who became the wife of Fred Williams, the builder of the Williams Hotel (1880-1890) that served as a local boarding house, where the Hassayampa Hotel stands today, donated the wreath to the museum.
Today, the thought of wearing human hair as jewelry can make one shudder; perhaps feel a little disgusted - maybe even creepy. This way of thinking is one of the reasons hair jewelry and artwork may have declined. In the book Love Entwined by Helen Sheumaker, the author states, "Twentieth-century American ideas of cleanliness in particular contributed to [hairwork's] decline. Just the idea of working with hair seems unclean to many people today - if not because of religious prohibitions then because of sanitary standards."
Debra Matthews, antique dealer, vintage jewelry collector and volunteer at the Sharlot Hall Museum, is giving a free presentation on Human HairArt.
She will talk about the history, her experiences in creating hair art, and display her personal collection of hair jewelry. The presentation is Saturday, Feb. 8, at 1 p.m., Sharlot Hall Museum Library & Archives, 115 S. McCormick St. If you have questions, please contact the Library & Archives Reference Desk at 445-3122, ext. 14.
Days Past is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners, International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles also are available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit articles for Days Past consideration. Please contact the phone number referenced above, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.