Creepy Collection: Post Two

Historic Arkansas Museum - Friday, October 30, 2020

By Victoria Garrett Chandler, Arkansas Made Researcher

 It is common enough for curators of any 19th century historical collection to encounter locks and strands of human hair. Many remnants of hair relics have been discovered in Historic Arkansas Museum’s collections attached to the pages of a school girl’s scrapbook, tucked in a letter, or warped by wire in a blossoming wreath. Hair held the sentiments of love and grief, and saving hair acted as a way to remember someone or to memorialize affections towards another. This saved hair was popularly incorporated into an object one could wear every day, an extremely fashionable trend in the 19th century.

Hairwork fashions included watch bands, rings, brooches, and earrings. Additionally, people frequently enclosed a lock of hair behind a miniature portrait or photograph of a loved one. The art of hairwork rose as a popular handcraft for women to practice in their homes, like embroidery, wax modeling, painting, and penwork. By the mid-19th century, many tutorials for hairwork appeared in ladies’ magazines and periodicals. Eventually hairwork kits were sold at varying prices, and ranged from simple kits to those including fancy gold scissors.

Mark Campbell’s 1867 book Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description is one example of the many instruction manuals available to women interested in learning the art of hairwork. A tripod table was necessary to create many of the intricate designs. This table featured a revolving cap with a central hole through which the weighted bobbins, wrapped with hair, could pass to create specific patterns.

"Braiding Table and Position in Braiding,” from Mark Campbell, Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description (New York: Campbell, 1867).

There are many examples of hairwork in HAM’s collection, including several hair wreaths. Woven around wires, and sometimes painted or incorporated with other textiles, hair wreaths presented floral scenes handsome enough to hang in the parlor of the home. Most of the time, women entwined their dearly departed’s hair with hair belonging to living family members. These wreaths acted as a physical manifestation of a family tree and a visual representation of intergenerational affection.

Hair Wreath, made by Angelina Rifner Calvin (December 5, 1828-September 30, 1912) and Martha Bonnell Calvin Keller (July 10, 1859-May 26, 1932), Illinois, 12 ½ x 11 in., ca. 1900, Gift of Catherine Hamilton Jones, 2001.24

Angeline Rifner Calvin (December 5, 1828-September 30, 1912) created this hair wreath around the turn of the century. It consists of Angeline’s hair, her daughter’s (Martha Bonnell Calvin Keller’s (July 10, 1859-May 26, 1932)), and her granddaughter’s (Victoria Marie Keller Hamilton Porter (January 1, 1898-December 10, 1980)) hair. There may be hair from additional members of the family, as hair from children’s births or early haircuts was commonly incorporated into the family wreaths. There are various colors of hair, ranging from dark brown to blonde. Angeline added colorful floral elements by using dyed wool yarn. Several individual pieces of this wreath are attached with hair pins, which suggests some of the pieces were worn in the hair as jewelry.

While hair wreaths might seem “creepy” to our modern sensibilities, saving a loved one’s hair and incorporating it into a memorial object represented the hope that “we will meet again” - a true sentiment of unity and love.