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Hair Work

August 17, 2012

If you were to pick up an issue of the Godey’s Lady’s Book during the 1850s, you would have likely found advertisements inviting you to send in hair to be made into jewelry, along with articles explaining how to make such jewelry on your own. As one such issue tenderly explained, “Hair is at once  the most delicate and lasting 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.'”

The phenomenon of hair work might now seem rather morbid under today’s scrutiny. However, during the Victorian era this was considered a perfectly normal, even popular, method for honoring a loved one. The same young women who learned sewing or embroidery often applied their adroit fingers to braiding hair as well, creating a variety of pieces such as pins, necklaces, watch chains, bookmarks, or even riding whips. For them, these pieces became sentimental tokens, taking on particular significance when they were separated from their loved one by distance or death.

Scroll through the photographs below to take a look at some examples of hair work from the Germantown Historical Society collections.

The above wreath of hair was made by Rachel E. Johnson of Buffalo, Erie County, New York in 1850. She entered the wreath in a contest at the Erie County Fair and took home prizes for her meticulous work. The wreath was eventually inherited by Mrs. Lucie Johnson White, Rachel’s grandaughter. Mrs. White moved to Germantown in 1878 and later chose to donate the wreath to the Germantown Historical Society in 1943.Close-up of the prize-winning hair wreath.

Pin with a cross. The accompanying tag reads “1752; From the Jacobus Family; Gift of Mr. Wesley Slagle – Phila., Pa”

Pair of earrings.

Assortment of bracelets. Note that there is also hair enclosed in the pendants in the bracelets on the far left and far right.

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