“What’s the most sentimental gift you have received?,” the Royal Collection Trust tweeted on Mothering Sunday. “Queen Victoria was a sentimental mother. She had numerous lockets and pendants made containing strands of her children’s hair.”
Many of Victoria’s contemporaries followed the popular trend of hairwork, a handcrafted art form practiced from the 1850s to the 1880s to remember loved ones by creating special objects with their hair.
While we might think it’s weird, revolting, or even squeamish, hairwork was a fashionable, unique practice rooted in sentimentality. Georgeanne Reuter, executive director of the Kelton House Museum, chose it as the featured subject for the museum’s Valentine’s Day tea.
Ladies and gentlemen alike turned to both popular magazines and craft books written by professional hairworkers to learn techniques and discover project ideas. With patience and skill, they braided strands of hair for centerpieces of fashion jewelry, wrapped and coiled it around wire to resemble flowers, and even ground it up and bound it with glue to create a painting pigment.
There were two ways to create jewelry with hair. Palette-worked hair was glued on a flat surface, cut into geometric shapes, and arranged to form patterns such as stars or crosses. Table-worked hair was braided into tightly woven, elaborate patterns. Strands of hair were threaded through a table with a domed top, laid out and weighted with wire, wood or lead, and then woven into braids and manipulated into designs of anchors, hearts and flowers. Both kinds of hairwork were then mounted into jewelry casings for rings, necklaces, earrings, brooches, stickpins, and watch fobs and chains. These finishing touches to garments were especially fashionable because human hair colors complemented the hues and textures of popular dressmaking fabrics of the day.
Hair was also pulverized, mixed with glue and painted onto ivory to create pictures, often mourning scenes. Strands of hair were even used for fine details such as fences and tombstone sides.
Large-scale hairwork projects often ended up on parlor walls in the form of hair wreaths. Strands of hair from multiple people were wrapped around wire and bent into loops to form “gimped” flower petals, leaves and concentric centers of flowers. When complete, the hair wreath measured from one to up to four feet in diameter and was placed in a shadowbox frame intended for the parlor wall. You can find an example of a hair wreath, together with a hairwork corsage, in the southeast bedroom on the second floor of the Kelton House.
Hairwork wasn’t the only subject for discussion at the tea, which featured apple and Stilton Welsh Rarebit bites; baked tuna cups; cheese and herb rugelach; chocolate bacon and smoked ham tea sandwiches; a Persian love frittata with walnuts and rose petals; cranberry snow cones; raspberry champagne cubes; blackberry panna cotta; chocolate cream pies; meringue Alfajore cookies; almond-topped cherry Bakewell doughnuts, and Earl Grey tea.
“Valentine’s Day and the Penny Post,” printed on the reverse of the menu, explained that Victorian Valentine cards were made from flat paper sheets with colored illustrations and embossed borders, and then were folded, sealed with wax, and mailed. Since postal charges were once calculated by distance and the number of pages sent, rather than by weight, sending something a long way could cost more than a worker’s daily wage. That changed on January 10, 1840, when the Uniform Penny Post was introduced. That year, Valentines could be mailed anywhere in Great Britain for one penny. The response was so great that postmen received a special allowance for refreshments to see them through the Valentine’s Day rush.
For more on hairwork, see Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description, an 1867 publication by Mark Campbell. The Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment with a Catalog of Hair Jewelry, by Mark Campbell, As Supplemented with Excerpts from Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, edited by Jules and Kaethe Kliot, is another compilation of hairwork techniques.
Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work at the Mütter Museum will be on exhibit at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia through July 12, 2018. A weekend of hairwork programming is planned for April 7-8, including a workshop on creating hairwork and a symposium in which collectors, artists and historians will discuss hairwork. John Whiteknight, one of the creators of the exhibit, wrote a chapter on hairwork in his book, Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession.
Hairwork is a research interest of Helen Sheumaker, senior lecturer in Miami University’s history department and American Studies program. Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America is her book on the subject.