Missouri’s Hair-Raising Hair Museum

leilashairmuseum.net / leilashairmuseum.net

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This week we’re headed to the home of Mark Twain, Harry Truman, and Jesse James—the Show-Me State, Missouri.

When you hear that Independence, Missouri has a hair museum, you’d probably expect to find antique curling irons, display cases full of combs, and any number of photos of the fads and fashions of hairstyles throughout history. But Leila’s Hair Museum isn’t about hairstyles, even if it is curated by Leila Cohoon, the founder of the local cosmetology school. Instead, you’ll find thousands of pieces of art and jewelry made from millions of strands of real human hair.

According to Helen Sheumaker of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, the practice of using human hair in art was popular in America from about 1770 until the turn of the 20th century, but its origins go back even further, possibly to the 12th century. Far from a weird or gross artform, collecting the hair of loved ones was seen as a great memento in the days before photography. Many families had large wreaths of hair woven in intricate patterns and delicate motifs, created using techniques that were passed down through generations of women. Some preferred the hair woven into the face of buttons, braided around the band of a ring, woven into dangling earrings, or crushed and mixed with paint to create small brooches called sepias. But there were also bookmarks, cufflinks, hat pins, and even complex, three-dimensional sculptures kept under glass domes for display on the mantel.

At Leila’s Hair Museum, you’ll find more than 600 hair wreaths and over 2000 pieces of hair jewelry, including her oldest piece, a brooch dating back to 1680. She started collecting hairwork in 1956 when she happened upon a hair wreath at an antique store. Her collection grew until she finally moved it to the lobby of her cosmetology school in 1986, and then to its own building in 2005. Aside from admiring the pieces, Leila has learned many of the secrets of this nearly-forgotten art form through reverse-engineering. Today she teaches classes where hair artists can learn 32 of 36 techniques identified in the hair wreaths. She’s still working out the other four, but hopefully she’ll crack them one day. In the meantime, should you ever find yourself in Independence, Missouri, this one-of-a-kind museum is worth a look.

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!    

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.