We have a few pieces of hair art in our collection that date back to the late 1800s. You might be thinking, "Did I read that correctly? Does the Shelby County Historical Museum actually have hair art in its collection? Did people in the 1800s not have yarn to use instead?"
Yes, as shocking as it sounds, we do have hair art in our collection. This piece of hair art was made by Mrs. Mary Lawrence of Portsmouth, Iowa. Mary was born on May 4, 1860 and died June 27, 1936; at some point within her lifetime she created this piece of hair art.
Hair art became popular in America during the 1860s. After Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861 she kept a lock of his hair in a locket. Hair art was widely used for two reasons, to solidify a friendship or to remember a loved one. While there were other materials artists utilized when creating their work hair was more than a medium because it was a sign of intimacy between two people.
Hair was commonly used to create jewelry or hair wreaths. Hair jewelry could be lockets filled with hair or rings made from hair. Just as Queen Victoria wore her late husband's hair in a locket, Americans also wore the hair of a loved one in a locket to remember them. Close friends might make rings out of each other's hair, like friends who exchange friendship bracelets today.
Hair wreaths were much larger than their symbolic counterpart, lockets filled with hair. While both remembered a loved one who had most likely passed away, hair wreaths required hair from three to four people. Hair wreaths were made in the shape of a 'U' to symbolize their loved one's ascent to heaven. In the photograph of the hair wreath you can see the different colors; this is because the different hair was collected from multiple people or dyed.
The practice of creating and having hair art may seem outdated and unusual now. Through technology such as photographs, videos, and voicemail we are able to remember our loved ones differently.