8 Collections Featuring Hair as Art and Souvenir
By Bess Lovejoy
Humans have been using hair to create jewelry and artwork for thousands of years. The practice goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt, when tomb paintings show pharaohs and their consorts exchanging hair balls as love tokens. But the practice of turning hair into art reached its zenith during the Victorian era, when locks were clipped from the living to create tokens of esteem and affection, or snipped from the dead to make mementos. During the Victorian era both men and women wore hair jewelry, which often came in the form of complicated braids fashioned into pins, rings, necklaces, bracelets, watch chains, and more. There were hair wreaths and hair paintings, and even hair sculptures; gold, jet, enamel, and seed pearls often adorned the hair to add further ornamentation. Often, hair came from a beloved family member or friend, but there was also a thriving trade in imported hair from strangers—the longer, finer, and more unusually colored the better. (Historic New England and the Massachusetts Historical Society have some great examples in their collections and online.)
The Victorian fascination with hair was part of that era’s preoccupation with death, an ever-present threat in the days when mortality rates were high. Jeweler Karen Bachmann, a professor of Art & Design at the Pratt Institute who teaches how-to classes on hairwork at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum, explains that the making of hair into mementos was a way Victorians coped with loss. "What interests me about hairwork is the concept of human anatomical relic as a stand-in for the entire person," she says. "Just as people have worshipped parts (bones, etc.) of saints, the Victorians held on to remnants of their loved ones by retaining pieces of their hair. In this way, the wearer could keep their loved one close—literally and metaphorically."
Today, there are still a few places where you can see Victorian hairwork on display, and an assortment of other spots where history and culture are wound up with famous and not-so-famous tresses:
1. Leila's Hair Museum // Independence, Missouri
For a crash course in Victorian hair work, visit Leila's Hair Museum. The brainchild of hairdresser Leila Cohoon, the museum includes a collection of more than 600 hair wreaths and 2,000 pieces of jewelry made with human hair, including bracelets, necklaces, earrings, hat pins, cuff links, buttons, and more. Cohoon says she began collecting hairwork in 1956, after falling in love with a small gold-framed hair wreath at a Kansas City, Missouri antiques dealer’s. She hasn’t looked back, and adds to her ever-growing collection by drawing on garage and estate sales, auctions, personal connections, and donations. The first iteration of Leila's Hair Museum opened in 1986 in the front of her cosmetology school, and moved to its current location in January 2005. Cohoon even gives classes on how to make Victorian-style hairwork yourself, and says she’s reverse-engineered 30 techniques the Victorians once used (she’s still working on another five).
2. Avanos Hair Museum // Goreme, Turkey
This may the world's only pottery center/guest house/hair museum. In a cave. As Atlas Obscura notes, "calling it a museum may be a bit of a stretch," but it's certainly a remarkable sight—an estimated 16,000 locks of hair dangle from the ceilings and walls, the oldest supposedly hung in 1979. The tendrils vary in color and size, but are all said to come from the heads of female visitors. Supposedly, a local potter started the place when a dear friend was saying goodbye and the potter asked for a souvenir to remember her by. The friend cut off a piece of her hair, which the potter ended up displaying in his pottery shop. He told the story to visitors, some of whom were moved to duplicate the woman's generosity, and the collection took off.
3. Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum has an excellent collection of hair jewelry, much of it stored in a cabinet on the mezzanine level of Room 91. Highlights include a fantastic diamond-and-pink sapphire broach with a locket of blond plaited hair, a beautiful brooch made to commemorate the death of a 16-year-old who died in 1842, and a 17th-century ring with an enameled skeleton on a background of hair, made in memory of a child known only by the initials “I.C.”
4. John Reznikoff’s Collection
Collector John Reznikoff's assortment of celebrity hair isn't usually open to the public—unless the public happens to be a buyer with some seriously deep pockets. Among the strands plucked from George Washington, Beethoven, Napoleon, and John Dillinger is a clump of hair said to come from Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, and still bearing bits of his brain matter. Reznikoff estimates that the clump, kept in a special gold-and-glass case, is worth about $750,000. Not all the samples get the gold box treatment, however; most rest inside a filing cabinet, in plain envelopes alongside documentation proving their origins.
Reznikoff buys from auction houses, small dealers, and the "occasional grandmother," according to The New York Times, but stopped buying hair from living celebrities after a deal with Neil Armstrong's barber led the former astronaut to sue. However, there's still plenty of business where dead celebrities are concerned—in 2008, Reznikoff sold a selection of Beethoven's hair to a company that turned it into a synthetic diamond, which eventually sold for $202,000 on eBay.
5. The Japan Hair Museum // Kyoto
Hair, fashion, and history go hand-in-hand—think of the flappers' bobs or 1960s beehives. At Kyoto's Japan Hair Museum, also known as the Japanese Coiffure Museum, 115 hairpieces provide a history of Japan through its many hairstyles, from the distant past to the product-obsessed present. Hundreds of hair ornaments and combs are also on display, although if hair accessories are more your thing, there's a museum for that too: The museum of Traditional Japanese Hair Ornaments in Tokyo.
6. Bangsbo Museum // Frederikshavn, Denmark
Hairwork has deep roots in Scandinavia, where poor harvests in the 19th century encouraged the rise of a cottage industry in hair art and jewelry made by country women. Known in Sweden as hårkullor, or "hair ladies," these women would often travel Europe creating hair-based handicrafts and sending the funds back home to help keep their villages afloat. They created all kinds of jewelry—brooches, rings, and watch chains—using hair provided (usually) by the customer. Men wore the hair of their wives fashioned into intricately braided watch chains, while women opted for necklaces, rings, and other adornments made from their husbands' tresses. Today, the Bangsbo Museum displays hårkullor handicrafts in a permanent exhibition that forms Northern Europe's largest collection of hair art. You can see necklaces, rings, wreaths, plaques, and most bizarrely, a pair of very hairy mittens.
7. John Varden’s Cabinets
In the early 1850s, John Varden was working for the National Institute for the Promotion of Science at the US Patent Office when he began collecting locks of hair for a display he would later call "Hair of Persons of Distinction." The curious framed collection included small snippets from the heads (presumably) of inventor Samuel Morse, sculptor Clark Mills, General Sam Houston, and Senators Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis, among other notables. Varden later created a second, equally large display featuring the hair of presidents from George Washington to Franklin Pierce. Both displays once belonged to the Patent Office, but now reside at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The first cabinet is notable for preserving Varden's appeal: “Those having hair of Distinguished Persons, will confere [sic] a Favor by adding to this Collection."
8. Myrans Hemslöjd // Vamhus, Sweden
Vamhus, Sweden may be the only place left in Europe with a thriving hairwork community. In the 19th century, village women made hundreds of trips around Europe to learn and perform the craft, and it never quite died out. If you save up your strands (and your pennies), you can order your own hairwork brooches, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, or watch chains here. You can see hairwork on display at Myrans Hemslöjd, a local handicrafts store that is keeping the tradition alive.