Hair, a symbol of life, has been associated
with death and funerals in many
cultures. Egyptian tomb paintings portray scenes showing pharaohs and
exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love. In Mexico, Indian
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.
Hair-work has early commercial roots in Scandinavian countries, where some is
still actively being done. In Sweden because of the population boom in
early 1800's, scarcity of farm land, and many cold summers; life was difficult
for small farmers in rural areas. In order to survive and keep their
they turned to crafts on a part-time basis. Each village developed its
In the small village of Vamhus, Dalarna, Sweden hair plaiting became a
necessity for the town's survival. A village woman who was skilled at
plaiting taught the craft to friends and relatives. Soon this small town of
1800 had as many as 300 hair workers. Because there was no market for
jewelry in the impoverished village, it was necessary for the hair workers to
take long journeys to sell their wares. 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 craft of hair-work spread throughout Europe. Beautifully detailed
landscapes and floral designs were made by jewelers using human hair. In
England in the late 18th century early neo-classical style pieces were
bordered with seed pearls surrounding the words "In Memoriam" and a panel of
simple, twisted hair. During the 19th century Queen Victoria presented
Empress Eugene with a bracelet of her own hair, and the Queen recorded in her
diary that the Empress was "touched to tears."
In the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition, a full line of hair jewelry was
displayed, as well as a full tea set made entirely of hair. By the
1850's hair was an expensive commodity with a variety of commercial uses.
Every Spring hair merchants visited fairs and markets throughout Europe. They
offered young girls ribbons, combs and trinkets in exchange for their hair.
Hair jewelry caught on in the United States as well. During the Civil War as
the soldiers left home to join the fight, they would leave a lock of hair with
their families. Upon the soldier's death, the hair was often made into a
piece of mourning jewelry or placed in a locket. These were gold or black,
and were sometimes engraved with "In Memory Of" and the initials or names of
Godey's Lady's Book endorsed the fashion of
hair jewelry and made it easy to
acquire. The following excerpt extolling the virtues of hair-work is from c.
"Hair is at once the most delicate and last
of our materials and survives us like
love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death,
that, with a
lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven
and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee
here, not unworthy of thy being now."
In 1855, the magazine offered to accommodate
any lady wishing hair made up
into jewelry, upon receipt of the hair and the price for making it. The
hair-work jewelry sold through Godey's was described as a superior product,
graceful in design and durable in quality. The gold in the finely chaised
mountings was of a warm reddish tone which contrasted beautifully with
intricate plaits of the hair.
Beginning in the 1850's through the 1900's, hairwork became a drawing room
pastime. Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine gave instructions and
patterns for making brooches, cuff links, and bracelets at home. To further
the craze for the homecraft, Godey's reminded readers that while mourning
etiquette decreed that only jet jewelry was allowed for first mourning, for
the second mourning, one could wear a brooch and bracelet made of hair with a
gold and black enamel clasp. Even a watch chain or plain gold belt buckle was
permissible for widowers to wear if made of hair or if it enclosed hair.
The work was done on a round table. Depending on the height of the
could be done sitting or standing. Women's work tables were usually 32
high, and men's tables stood four feet. Preparation was important. The
must be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes. It was then sorted into
and divided into strands of 20-30 hairs. Most pieces of jewelry required
hair. For example, a full size bracelet called for hair 20 to 24" long.
Sometimes horse hair was used because it was coarser than human hair, and thus
easier for a beginner.
Almost all hairwork was made around a mold or firm material. Snake
and brooches, spiral earrings and other fancy hair forms required special
molds which were made by local wood turners. The mold was attached to
center hole in the work table. The hair was wound on a series of
weights were attached to the braid work to maintain the correct level and to
keep the hair straight. When the work was finished and while still around the
mold, it was taken off, boiled for 15 minutes, dried and removed from the
mold. It was then ready to go to a jewelers for mounting.
Victorian hair jewelry is available to collectors in a variety of forms, and
prices are still quite reasonable. A few museums where hairwork is displayed
are the Dearborn Historical Society and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn,
Michigan and the Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sandy Freel,
museum volunteer, demonstrates hairwork at Living History Farms in Urbandale,
Iowa. Call (515) 278-5286 for information.
Ruth Gordon publishes the H. A. I. R. Line newsletter for those interested
in the craft and history of hairwork. Send SASE for more information to:
Ruth Gordon, 24629 Cherry Street, Dearborn, MI 48124. A new hairwork web
on the Internet by Marlys Fladeland will feature articles, instructions, and
antique piece to order.
The fashion for all mourning jewelry came to
an end at the turn of the 20th
century with the death of Queen Victoria, the onset of World War I and the
increased freedom for women.