“A bracelet of bright haire about the bone”
John Donne (1571-1631)
When a contemporary person first learns about the use of human hair in antique jewelry, most respond with one of several emotions. Generally, we feel a mix of revulsion, disgust, amusement and curiosity. Using human hair as a wearable commodity in this way is completely alien to our modern sensibilities. What I find most interesting is how our response points to the differences between our modern culture and that of the Georgian and Victorian eras. They were altogether a more sentimental and intimate people; affection, love, family loyalty and passion were at the center of their worldview. Wearing hair was a symbol of deep affection, union and love between people.
Human hair has unique properties which enable it to last for thousands of years. References to hair being used in jewelry can be traced back to Shakespeare’s time and no doubt existed before. However, hair work truly flourished during Victorian times with its height being from the 1840s to around 1890. Hair was worn as love tokens, to symbolize family connections and as mourning jewelry. The surviving pieces from the late 18th century and early 19th century were usually made with hair from living people and used as inlays for rings and for pendants and lockets. Locks of hair were often kept in special compartments on the back of brooches, pendants, rings, pendants or watch fobs and it is not unusual to be surprised by finding hair tucked away somewhere in an antique piece. It was only later, after Albert’s death, that pieces began to be primarily made as mourning items using hair taken from the dead.
From the 1760s to 1810, hair was mixed in with sepia and painted on to ivory. This was called Sepia Hair Painting and pieces were custom created to individual requirements. Chopped hair and glue was also used on ivory and sometimes vellum to create designs. Victorian hair work jewelry was often produced at home in the living room and was considered an appropriate past time for both ladies and gentlemen, although primarily ladies. By the late 1850s, doing hair work was as popular as crocheting or tatting.
There were two ways of working with hair. One was called ‘Palette work’ and it was created on an artists palette. It was most appropriate for small pieces and popular motifs included Prince of Wales feathers, landscapes and flowers. The other method was table work, involving a table and bobbins, which was similar to lace making or the Japanese braiding known as kumihimo. However, pieces were more often made to order, with lockets containing hair being the most popular. As glass replaced faceted crystal, hair could be placed underneath with less expense.
During the 19th century, hair work was very much part of popular culture and had spread across Europe and America, being particularly prominent in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France and across Bohemia. In some countries, it appears to be more of a domestic craft, in others it was more of a high art. In 1858, fashion magazine La Belle Assemblè referred to the French hairwork artist Limmonièr with the highest of praise. There was even one reference to ‘the saintly white hair of the aged’ making beautiful jewelry. Although hair work has been said to have come originally from Germany, rather than hair work appearing to emerge from a specific place, it seems that hair work was a spontaneous folk invention across many countries. The American hair work industry thrived during the 19th century and particularly during The Civil War and survives even today as a traditional folk art.
But hair work was not just for ordinary people, it was also beloved by royalty. Empress Eugenie of France was “was touched to tears when I gave her a bracelet with my hair”, wrote Queen Victoria upon presenting her with a bracelet made from her own hair.
“As the hair is the only part of our beloved friends which can be kept in memoriam, it is natural that we should desire to preserve the treasure in some manner that will testify our appreciation of its value…” -Ladies’ Fancy Work, 1876.
The finished pieces of hair, whether made at home or by professional hair workers, were then sent to a goldsmith who would make jewelry fittings for them. Increasingly, however, pieces were ordered via mail order to be made from beginning to end. Customers could select a design from a catalog, send in the hair they wanted used, and receive the finished product some time later. Hair worked jewelry was a common gift for loved ones. It was not considered proper for a young lady to give or receive gifts from a man unless they were betrothed; however, gifts of hair were considered acceptable so long as they were not jeweled. Many besotted young men had their lover’s hair woven into watch chains so they could contemplate her several times a day.
Godey’s Lady’s Book wasone of the leading mail order company in the business, as well as the National Artistic Hair work Company. The 1867 Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work by Mark Campbell is the most well known book about hair work technique.
The history of hair work can be seen to reflect the rise of industrialism. In the beginning, made at home or by individual artisans, hair work resisted the homogeneous and shallow commerciality that other jewelry was succumbing to. However, the market demanded a supply of inexpensive, ready made goods that didn’t require the individual attention that hair work demanded. By 1908, Sears was advertising their services with the disclaimer, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee the same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” People started to get disenchanted with hair work because of these kinds of worries and because of the general overly-commercial feeling of the industry which had once been so much about sentimentality. Stories of unfortunate European peasant girls being shorn bald for the hair trade abounded. When stories of hair being taken from rotting dead bodies emerged, the public lost patience. Demand for hair work plummeted to zero within a few short years. By 1925 the hair work industry was completely at an end.
Although it is debatable whether or not the taste for wearing human hair will ever make a true comeback, the surviving hair work pieces are considered very collectible and are remarkable works of art and history.
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