Historian Helen Sheumaker tells Brian about the 19th century craze for jewelry and art woven out of human hair, and how hair came to be seen as a symbol of authenticity and enduring emotional bonds.
BRIAN: When historian Helen Shoemaker was a teenager, she stumbled upon a strange artifact in an antique fair. It was just a little thing, a small button made of woven material, but she says she noticed something odd about the fabric.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: The dealer, who was grumpy, I asked him if it was hair. It looked like hair to me. And he said no, that would be stupid.
NATHAN: It turns out, it wasn’t that stupid. The button was made of human hair. Shoemaker would later learn that using hair in ornamental objectcs was fashionable throughout the 19th century. For example, in the Victorian era, some Americans had the locks of their loved ones fashioned into elaborate room decorations, in which the hair would be arranged in wreaths or flowers.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: But the more popular kind was hair jewelry, and it was in the form of everything from earrings to bracelets to watch chains.
BRIAN: Shoemaker says the fad died out by the 1920s, but at the height of its 19th century popularity, hair art and jewelry had deep meaning. It was a reflection of the Victorian penchant for sentimentality.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: It was supposed to be from the heart. It was supposed to reflect your very close connections to other people and your emotions, but in very artificial, structured ways. So the hair was used to represent the individual but, I think even more, it represented the emotional connections between individuals.
BRIAN: And why hair? Why was hair such an important medium for expressing this sentimentality?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: Yet they thought of hair as a physical extension of the person. This became all the more important when a person died, but it was an important aspect of it when the person was alive as well. They talked a lot about it as a living part of the person that never aged. That is actually true. Once the hair is made into hair jewelry, the hair stays the same as when it was originally made. Hair, I think, had a pliability to it both in terms of its material but also in terms of its, it didn’t actually depict the person, but it was the person.
BRIAN: So what kind of people wore hair art or displayed hair art in their homes?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: Largely white middle class Americans. It’s much rarer to come across jewelry made of hair that was extremely inexpensive. There is a certain amount of hand labor that just made it in the cost range for the middle class, or at least comfortable.
BRIAN: And was it just the cost or was there something about middle class culture at this time that just screamed out for hair?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: Yeah, this was more about expressing a kind of middle class identity. The middle class status was derived in part by a man being able to support a wife and family in a home. So women weren’t supposed to be working outside the home for pay. That sets up a kind of tension between the work world that the man is competing in and the home, domestic life that is supposed to be quite distinct and apart from that economic world.
BRIAN: And how did hair bridge that divide or bridge that gap?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: So one of the most popular forms of hair art was the man’s watch chain.
BRIAN: And would this be something that he wore on his wrist or something that he hung from his belt?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: It would be something he would wear, actually, over the vest but under his jacket.
BRIAN: Oh, I see.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: And then the end of it held the watch that was tucked into a pocket on the other side. So when you saw a man wearing the male uniform of the dress suit or the business suit, one of the most popular accents was this braid of, usually, your wife’s hair intermixed with the hair of your children. So it served as a reminder to you, to the man, but also to the people around him, that he had an emotional life beyond his work life.
BRIAN: So what do you think the popularity of hair art among the middle class in the 19th century tells us about the way they conceived of themselves?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: So I think that the hair art really taps into the ways in which 19th century Americans were uneasy about the culture as it moved towards a more modern 20th century outlook. And what they were concerned about was that it was eroding the emotional ties between people, the very reason that you would be working. The very reason that you would partner with somebody was also being undermined by this larger economic change.
BRIAN: And what is today’s equivalent of hair art?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: If you’ve ever been at a grocery store or a convenience store and the person who checks you out has a row of photo buttons and they are their grandchildren or their children, you are seeing the same phenomena.
BRIAN: Fascinating. Yeah, fascinating.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: So at our Wal-Mart when I get checked out, I’ll sometimes have a clerk who will have three or four of these photograph buttons.
BRIAN: Sure, sure.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: And what she’s telling me without having to say it is I am a lot more than this job, because I have emotional relationships and responsibilities.
BRIAN: How long did you work on your book about hair art?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: 10 years or so. I lived with the project.
BRIAN: OK, so when you tell people you examine lots of hair art, what was their reaction?
HELEN SHOEMAKER: Most people asked if it had bugs.
That was by far the most– you know, like, did I see a lot of bugs? You know. It was just hair.
BRIAN: Thank you so much for joining us on BackStory today.
HELEN SHOEMAKER: Thank you.
BRIAN: Helen Shoemaker is a historian at Miami University and the author of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hair Work in America.