Hair A Symbol Of Life

Excerpt from: Godey's Lady's Book, 1850.

"Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like
 love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a
lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven 
and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee 
here, not unworthy of thy being now."

Hair has been associated with death and funerals in many cultures and dates back as far as the Egyptians.  Tomb paintings portray scenes of pharaoh and queens exchanging hairballs as tokens of everlasting love.  The Mexican Indians kept hair in special jars that were buried with them so the soul would not become tired when looking for missing parts to carry to the other world. Commercial hairwork however has its origins in in the village of Vamhus, Dalarna, Sweden. The village women took to the craft, as a way of supplementing their income when farming was impossible during the harsh winters. The villages took their art to sell to other countries in Europe and the craft and art of fashioning hair into jewellery soon spread.

The Georgian and Victorian Eras can be viewed as the most sentimental and romantic in history to date.  Some hair was used as Mourning Pieces or “momento mori” translated to “remember you must die”.  Although this may seem morbid this era in history was one of high mortality rate due to disease and pestilence, the uncertainty of life and the lack of medicine in those days it comes as no surprise that memorial jewellery was a common. Hair jewellery, on the other hand, was also given as a token of love and affection to sweethearts, family members and cherished friends.  This form of hair jewellery can be dated back to the 1600’s, bracelets were given by both men and women as tokens of love.

Beginning in the 1850's through the 1900's, hairwork became a drawing room 
pastime. Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine gave instructions and 
patterns for making brooches, cuff links, and bracelets at home. 

Mourning etiquette decreed that only jet jewelry was allowed for first mourning, for 
the second mourning, one could wear a brooch and bracelet made of hair with a 
gold and black enamel clasp.  A watch chain or plain gold belt buckle was 
permissible for widowers to wear if made of hair or if it enclosed hair.





Rings, necklaces earrings, watch chains and brooches were all crafted from hair. The 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition saw a full line of hair jewelry 
displayed, as well as a full tea set made entirely of hair.  Rings would be engraved with loving messages and memorials either on the face or inside the band or rings with hidden compartments for locks of hair.  Brooches were made in all sizes from the daintiest of lace pin, worn by both men and women, to a larger 3" oval brooch/pendants that could be worn around the neck. Beautiful detailed 
landscapes and floral designs were made by jewelers using human hair, in 
England in the late 18th century early neo-classical style pieces were 
bordered with seed pearls, garnets, coral and other semi precious stones.

 

Hairwork was done on a round table either sitting or standing, this determined the table’s height. The length of the hair was an important factor in determining the piece of jewellery to be made.  Most pieces required long hair, for example, a full size bracelet called for hair between 20-24” long.  The hair was prepared by first boiling it in soda water for 15 minutes, it was then sorted into lengths and divided into strands of 20-30 hairs.


Horse hair was sometimes used it is coarser than human hair, and much 
easier for a beginner. Nearly all hairwork was created around a mold of some kind. Fancy hairwork; including snake bracelets, brooches, spiral earrings and other pieces required special 
molds, these were made by wood turners. The mold was attached to the 
center hole in the worktable, while the hair was wound on a series of bobbins, weights were attached to the braid work to maintain the correct level, tension and keep the hair straight. Once the work was completed and while still around the 
mold, it was then boiled for a further 15 minutes, dried and removed from the 
mold. It was then ready to go to the jewelers for mounting and transformed into a wearable piece of exquisite jewellery.

Watch chains and bracelets often show the most ingenious hair weaving techniques with more than one color of hair often used, perhaps a chain given by three daughters to their father or a necklace or bracelet to their mother.

Such was the extent and beauty of the craft Queen Victoriapresented 
Empress Eugene with a bracelet of her own hair. The Queen recorded in her 
diary that the Empress was "touched to tears"

. Napoleon wore his watch on a chain made from the hair of his wife, Empress, Marie Louise. 

 

Hair work also spread to the Americas and during the Civil War, as 
the soldiers left home to join the fight, they would leave a lock of hair with 
their families. Upon the soldier's death, the hair was often made into a 
piece of mourning jewelry or placed in a locket. 

© 2018 by Craig T. Palmer-Fairbairn. 

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