Hair…That Which Survives Us
During the 19th century everyday was shadowed by death. Out of every 20 babies born 3 would die before their first birthday. Victorians viewed death as a natural part of the life cycle. The strict rituals regarding Victorian Mourning came about due to two factors. Foremost was the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Consort Albert in 1861 of typhoid and the Civil War in the United States. Queen Victoria wore her widow’s weeds and in fact remained in deep mourning for the remainder of her reign which ended on her death in 1901. All photos of the family included a life size marble bust of Prince Albert. Victoria ordered that his dressing room at Windsor Castle was to remain exactly as he left it. His clothing was laid out every night, and hot water prepared for his nightly ablutions. Victorian Mourning rituals were centered around remembrance of the lost loved one and the belief in the reunion with the departed love one in the afterlife.
The hair flower at the right is from my personal collection and is a large piece. It measures 5 inches long and the flower is 3 inches in diameter. I am not sure if this was to be a part of a Mourning Wreath or perhaps a gift of love to a lover. Irregardless it is a beautiful representation of the art of hair work during the Victorian Era.
Due to the fact that Mourning rituals were centered around remembrance of the deceased loved one it should be easy to understand how the use of hair would come to play an important role in Victorian Mourning and those rituals associated with it. Hair was the one thing that could be kept and did not decay. Through hair it was possible to always have a piece of the loved one close and to touch that which had been a part of them. It also served as a reminder that death could occur to anyone at anytime and therefore it was very important to live a pure life as the possibility of death was every present. Thus by living a pure life the Victorians believe that reunification with the lost loved was possible. One of the most popular monthly ladies magazine during the 19th century was The Godey’s Lady’s Book or magazine published by Louis A. Godey. In their May 1855 issue the following offers a summary on the value of hair as a remembrance:
“Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting 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 the angelic nature–may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.”
Hair art can be found in many forms from complex wreaths, earrings, wonderfully elaborate pictures, brooches, bracelets and lockets containing either a lock of hair or intricately woven hair. Rings made of hair from the departed loved one were frequently given as a memorial to the deceased family and friends. Many pieces of hair wreaths and jewelry were lovingly made by the family and then taken to a jeweler to have a clasp or pin back added. There were commercial hair artist that could be commissioned to create custom made pieces for more affluent persons. The hair brooch at the right is from my personal collection. It is from the 1860’s and is 2 inches wide. It is in fair condition as there are areas where the hair has separated from the fittings.
We should note that not all hair art was connected to mourning. It could be used as a means of recording family history and wreaths containing hair from many different family members can be found. Locks of hair were also exchanged between both friends and lovers as tokens of their affection. I have read that Queen Victoria presented Empress Eugenie of France a bracelet made of her hair and that Empress Eugenie was touched to tears upon the presentation. The hair wreath at the right is from my personal collection and measures 22 inches tall and 22 inches wide. I think it was used as a recording of family history as it contains hair of many different colors indicating that it represents different family members.
The customs regarding Mourning in America closely followed those of England. During the Civil War it was a frequent practice for a departing soldier to leave a lock of his hair with his wife or mother to be be made into a hair remembrance piece should he not return home. Equally common was the practice of the wife to give a departing soldier a lock of her hair so she would always be close to him. Death was so wide spread that many women never came out of mourning until the war was over.