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The Lost Craft of Victorian Hair Art

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Hair art was often molded into the shape of a bell jar for easy display.

The Victorian era (from 1837 to 1901) was a time when people were surrounded by death. Many families were forced to confront death directly whether it was because of the lack of medical advances, the mourning of Prince Albert by Queen Victoria (the queen after which the era was name) 40 years after his death until her own, or the Civil War that was being waged in America where over 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. This period is unique since we see such a strong development of mourning culture. Many of the historical tales I’ll share on this blog took place at this time, but today I’m going to focus on Victorian hair art.

Wear mom’s hair as earrings

When most people think of hair and mementos they think of a lock of hair in a locket worn around the neck. A simple representation of keeping a piece of a loved one close after they’re gone. During the time it was even practice among the living seen as a gesture of friendship. Girls would exchange locks of hair similarly to the friendship bracelets we see today. Hair is an extremely personal thing. The power in which a color or tone of hair holds, the style in which its worn, the length, it’s health, it’s age are all incredibly representative of the wearer.

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An elaborate family portrait surrounded by floral hair art.

Beyond the simple locket, women of middle class standing, would make elaborate wreaths, earrings, brooches, and even dioramas from the deceased’s hair.  A blend of the deceased and living’s hair could also be used as a sentimental representative of the closeness of the family to the deceased. Hair from the dead would be collected and saved in a “hair collector” so it’d could be used to weave into elaborate designs. Hair was collected one by one as each family member passed away. The practice was viewed as a simple part of tending to your home and was featured in publications for women at the time. You could find patterns similar to dress patterns available today.

This art had an incredible amount of symbolism built into the designs, patterns, and material as well. For the deceased, wreaths wear shaped as horseshoes with the opening at the top signifying the loved one’s ascent to heaven. In wreath’s made with multiple family member’s hair the deceased’s hair would have a more prominent placing. It can’t be understated how popular and outright trendy it was to wear this jewelry at the time.

What does assassination have to do with hair art?

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Lincoln’s funeral train adorned with a portrait.

The art form slowly fell out of style towards the end of the era as embalming gained popularity. After Lincoln’s assassination his body was preserved and carted around the country by train to allow his people to mourn. This journey would require a method to preserve the body.  Any decay, odor, or shocking changes to the visage that the American public was so familiar with would need to be avoided at all costs. It was a rather macabre event. Oddly enough Lincoln’s son who has died of Typhoid at the age of 11 was also disinterred and brought on the ghoulish tour and reburied next to his father in Springfield.

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Lincoln’s body toured over 400 cities on it’s journey to Springfield, Illinois.

Previous to Lincoln’s assassination, Dr. Thomas Holmes would be on the battlefield serving as a part of the civil war. Holmes would test a new procedure called “arterial embalming”. This procedure gave way to the modern day practice of draining the blood from the arteries and replacing it with preservative chemicals. When the public realized they could have their son’s corpse sent home for a proper viewing and burial, demand skyrocketed. This paved the path to the undertaker (soon to become the funeral director) gaining a position of stature and respect within local communities. Previously, the undertaker carried no weight within popular social circles and was often viewed as a grim figure.

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The embalming tent at Camp Letterman after the Battle of Gettysburg depicting a mortician’s services. No different from the current day display window at a department store, the mortician’s “goods” were put on display.

Fear of the Dead

So what does Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of the funeral industry have to do with the decline of Victorian hair art? With families having their deceased embalmed by a professional, this meant the power and control over mourning was slowly being handed over to the funeral directors and embalmers. There was no certification or schooling required to become a mortician, but they soon held the same stature as a surgeon or distinguish doctor.

Families were made to believe corpses were somehow dangerous to families and could spread disease. Shocker: Dead bodies pose no risk to the living, unless their death was caused by something contagious like tuberculosis. Best to hand over these ticking time bombs to the professionals, right?

Families were slowly having to confront the reality of death less and less. This lead to the significant deterioration of mourning culture. This included the art of Victorian hair craft. The decline can also be attributed to the shifting in preferences when it came to fashion and interior design. Both were becoming more simplified, straying from the elaborate fabric patterns, layering of wallpaper, and detailed furniture pieces. Hair art simply didn’t fit in with the fashion of the time.

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Hair art created by a student at the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s class on Victorian hair art.

Keepers of the craft

Present day there are some organizations which strive to keep the art alive. Most infamous is the Leila’s Hair Museum, which is run by Leila Cohoon who begin her collection in 1952. She’s been collecting every since, so you can imagine how many pieces she’s acquired over the ages. At the now defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum, there were previously classes devoted to crafting Victorian hair art. You can also find some originals at auctions, estate sales, and antique stores. With the art not completely lost, a small sect of the public strive to keep it alive.

Do you own any Victorian hair art? Would you like to? Would you make a piece from your loved one’s hair?

One thought on “The Lost Craft of Victorian Hair Art Leave a comment

  1. I found this to be very informative. One never, at least not me, gives a thought to the history of mourning and the funeral industry and how it came to be. I walk this world a little bit smarter today!

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