Philadelphia Museum Displays Snippets of Presidential Hair

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This month, American history is getting a little hairy at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. To honor the upcoming Democratic National Convention—which will be held in the City of Brotherly Love from July 25 to 28, 2016—the natural science research institution and museum is hosting an exhibition called Presidential Archives: Letters, Hair, and Fossils. There, the Associated Press reports, visitors can view the locks of historic U.S. presidents—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson—until the display ends on July 29.

The exhibit also includes the personal correspondence of former commanders-in-chief, and quirky relics like Thomas Jefferson’s mastodon fossils. However, its main draw is arguably its extensive assortment of presidential tresses, which were originally collected by a Philadelphia lawyer named Peter Arrell Browne. During his lifetime, Browne, who lived from 1762 to 1860, amassed a 12-volume collection of hair. After his death, his “hair albums”— which included samples from mammals, human ethnic groups, and famous figures like Napoleon Bonaparte—were donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences, the museum’s website states.

Collecting hair might seem strange today, but it was a common pastime during the 18th and 19th centuries. People often kept hair clippings from loved ones, and kept them in jewelry, like lockets, as a mark of their affection. However, Browne—who, as a former member of the Academy of Natural Sciences was interested in science and natural history—took the hobby a step further: He wrote directly to famous people (or their relatives) and asked for the goods, which he claimed would help him in his scientific research. (Some of Browne’s hair snippets are accompanied by letters, which explain how they ended up in his possession.)

Browne never completed his dream collection. He tried—and failed—to collect locks from Ben Franklin and Jefferson Davis, who at the time was Secretary of War and would later become the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. However, Browne still managed to create a quirky, humanizing homage to America’s founding fathers.

For more information on Presidential Archives: Letters, Hair, and Fossils, visit the Academy of Natural Science's website.

[h/t Associated Press]

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