How did people live before Instagram filters? The beauty standards of current day seem damningly harsh. Is Photoshop one of the greatest technological tools of the last century? It’s easy to think we’re at the pinnacle of photography and image manipulation, but surprisingly, things weren’t that different from photo editing today.
Photo of a man’s head retouched to appear rounder
During the Edwardian and Victorian era photo retouching was all the craze. Photographers would retouch the actual negatives to eliminate wrinkles, harsh lighting, or even sculpt or shave down features.
Jocelyn Sears has a fantastic piece on this titled, “8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs”, over at Mental Floss. In the article she describes the harsh beauty standards at the time, mostly derived from the pseudo medical practices of phrenology and physiognomy. These studies implied that someone’s character or personal traits could be determined by their physical features.
Photo alteration in which a young woman’s teeth which have been hidden
Unsurprisingly, these practices take us down a familiar path we’re all too used to even to this day when it comes to beauty standards; sexism and racism. For example,
“An instructive article on retouching in the magazine The New Photo-Miniature noted that forehead wrinkles are ‘lines and marks of age or thought or worry’ and that ‘In women under fifty they should generally be removed almost completely. In men they are generally merely softened, as often expressing character and individuality.’ Women’s wrinkles, apparently, do not express character or individuality as men’s do.” – 8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs, Jocelyn Sears
It does seem, however, that beauty standards have pretty much done a complete 180. While today contouring and angular faces are pushed in magazines and advertising, prominent cheekbones and sharp features were viewed as masculine and displeasing. A woman was retouched to have soft, full features.
“The Complete Self-Instructing Librarywarned, ‘A high cheek-bone suggests more of the animal nature in the individual; a lower cheek-bone, which gives by far more beauty to the face, denotes mildness of character and a more congenial nature.’ Sharp, prominent cheekbones imply too much forcefulness of character to be considered attractive on women…” – 8 Odd Beauty Standards in Turn-of-the-Century Photographs, Jocelyn Sears
It seems like this is a battle never to be won but at least in this day and age we’re the one’s with the self agency and power to do the retouching. What features do you play up in your photo editing? Would you be into getting an old photograph of yourself touched up in turn-of-the-century style?
Dollhouses are definitely a horror trope. If you’ve got one in your house after you’re age 7 you’re probably in for some sort of demonic haunting. ( I mean, have y’all seen the trailer for Hereditary yet?) One woman chose to embrace “dollhouses” and miniatures in her work late in life. Frances Glessner Lee’s work isn’t famous for any hauntings surrounding it, but instead for it’s subject matter. Murder scenes.
Lee’s works technically weren’t considered dollhouses but instead referred to as “nutshells”. Dioramas in a sense. 20 original pieces were created by hand to assist in actual homicide investigations. These were referred to as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. Lee went to painstaking measures to ensure the details of each scene were precise and accurate. When viewing the works you can even see some of the newspapers in scenes even have visible dates and headlines on them. Mind you, these are sometimes the size of a postage stamp. It was critical to Lee to get all of these details right since they’re primary purpose was to teach investigators how to fully examine all evidence at a crime scene. The scale of these is 1 inch per foot.
Frances’s backstory was a shared one with other ambitious women at the time. She grew up with her brother in Chicago. He ended up attended Harvard but an equally intelligent and ambitious Frances was not allowed to attend college. Instead she was to marry and tend to the home. She eventually met Blewett Lee, a wealthy lawyer, and they soon were wed. The duration of her marriage Lee was restless. After becoming friends with one of her brother’s classmates at Harvard, George Burgess Magrath, Frances began journeying into the subject of forensics and homicide investigation. Although, after expressing this interest to her husband and brother, she was discouraged from taking any steps forward when it came to education or research on the subject.
A young Frances “Fanny” Glessner. Photo from the Glessner House Museum.
After divorce from her husband and her brother’s death, Frances was free to pursue her passion. After inheriting a good amount of wealth from her family, she began finding ways to join the medical and forensic community. She was a generous philanthropist, donating $250,000 to the Harvard University to create a chair in Legal Medicine. She also founded the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. She was highly influential in the field, pushing police departments to move from dependence on coroners to actual medical investigators at crime scenes. She became known as the “Mother of Forensic Science.” At the time of her philanthropic work Frances was an older woman at the age of 52.
Lee working diligently on her miniatures in 1940, all painstakingly handcrafted. Photo from The Glessner House Museum.
Frances was only just starting her journey as a woman late into her life. At age 60 she began working on the now infamous nutshell scenes. A pioneer in the forensics field, she saw value in the study of these scenes. They were portable and accompanied her to many lectures across the country. The lecture series was the “Seminars in Homicide Investigation for State Police.” Each was set in a diorama which pictured a crime and asked the question, what truly happened to the victim?
Each depiction had working lights, doors, all the way down to food in fridges, mousetraps and kitchen utensils. No detail was too small to include since it could offer valuable information to investigators. Corpses were also placed in scenes in their exact positioning and stage of composition at the time they were found. Victims (or killers) ranged from women (the majority of the subjects), men, children, workers to farmers.
I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death at the Renwick Gallery this past January. Visitors filed around these tiny dioramas, peering into each haunting and puzzling scene (sometimes with flashlights which were provided) to try and piece together the crime. It turns out I would make an abysmal investigator. The photos below are some shots I took during my time at the gallery.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?