A Love Affair Begins
Carmelita Johnson’s love affair with hairwork began in 1968. Already a devoted antique collector, she became enchanted with a little gold ring resting in a case in an antique store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. When she asked what the woven material was around the middle, the dealer explained that it was human hair. The ring was beautiful, obviously professionally made, and Carmelita couldn’t afford to buy it. Her mother purchased the ring for her as a surprise birthday gift, and that was the beginning of Carmelita’s obsession, resulting in one of the most extraordinary collections of hairwork in private hands.
From 1968 until the time of her death in 2002, Carmelita Johnson amassed a collection of over 500 examples of hairwork, researched and published what many call a seminal work in the field, and contributed to two books among collectors. Her collection was renowned among dealers, authors, other collectors, and many simply interested in the craft. It includes jewelry such as rings, pendants, earrings, brooches and bracelets; watch fobs; framed wall art; wreaths; buttons; picture frames; a diadem; a purse; a doll’s coat; and many, many more items constructed of or containing human hair. A portion of Carmelita's collection resides at the Stagecoach Inn Museum; the rest is at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles.
The Curious Art of Hairwork
Throughout time, a lock of hair, given or taken as a treasured memento, has signified love, affection and friendship. In America and many parts of Europe, from the late 1600s to the beginning of the 1900s, that same lock of hair might have been fashioned into jewelry and worn (by a man or woman) to express one's love for another, to mark an engagement or wedding, to maintain a bond with someone separated by distance or war, or kept as a remembrance of a deceased loved one. Hair jewelry was also made to commemorate important events, heroic deeds or victories, even conquests in love.
A Long Tradition
Hairwork was especially popular in the British Isles, France, the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and even Bohemia, eventually extending from the royal courts of Europe to the growing middle-class of America.
The tradition of crafting hair into decorative objects arrived in North America with the colonists. Artisans from all corners of Europe, immigrating to America, brought with them the skills necessary to produce jewelry as fine as any made on the continent.
The craft became so widespread in the Victorian Era (1837-1901) that it would have been difficult to find a home without hair keepsakes: hair art on the wall, hair jewelry or a watch chain as personal adornment, a hair album on the shelf. Hairwork's popularity reached its zenith from 1830 to 1880, and had all but disappeared by the 1920's.
Hair jewelry has its roots in mourning jewelry known as memento mori (literally, "remember death"), popular in the 1500s. Memento mori jewelry was usually engraved with the name of the deceased and date of death, and, against a black background, used grim motifs such as skulls, skeletons, coffins, burials, shovels and hourglasses to convey the impression that the wearer was a serious, philosophical, religious person who was aware that death was ever-present.
In the late 1600s, artisans (known as hairworkers) began weaving hair into jewelry. Items were small, made for an exclusive, elite clientele, with hair plaited and placed under crystal. The hair was used as a memento, rather than a design element, and was usually on the back of the jewelry piece, or in a hidden chamber.
In the 1700s, instead of representing the social status of the dead, mourning jewelry was seen as having sentimental and emotional value. Pieces became larger and hairwork designs grew more intricate and elaborate, often worked with gold and pearls. Hair moved to the front of lockets and brooches. Hairwork was more affordable, as made-to-order jewelry became available. Ladies could work the hair at home and goldsmiths would provide the settings.
Particularly popular in America at this time were jewelry pieces made of painted ivory, using chopped hair mixed into sepia to paint scenes on the ivory background. The memento mori designs gave way to romanticized scenes depicting a female figure standing or seated by the side of a gravestone with epithets and a weeping willow.
The making, giving and wearing of hairwork exploded in the 1800s, when it moved beyond a display of sentimentality, to become the height of fashion. Designs became more and more elaborate; they were woven and puffed into amazing forms and shapes. New styles developed thatdid not simply include hair but were made completely of hair. "Persons of good taste" wore hair as superior to jewelry made out of gold or silver. Hair was no longer merely preserved under glass, but could be elaborately braided to form bracelets, necklaces and watch chains.
In her 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen wrote of love tokens such as hair, hairwork, and miniature portraiture. Austen preserved a lock of hair with a note in her handwriting that read "My Father's Hair." Invididuals, including Austen herself, commonly specified n their wills that their hair was to be set in jewelry and given to certain friends and family members. Napoleon Bonaparte's will included this item: "Marchand shall preserve my hair, and cause a bracelet to be made of it, with a little gold clasp, to be sent to the Empress Maria Louisa, to my mother, and to each of my brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, the Cardinal; and one of larger size for my son."
Queen Victoria's patronage of the art fueled the industry. Victoria exchanged hair mementos throughout her life, and wore a lock of Prince Albert's hair from the time of their engagement in 1839 to the time of her death in 1901. In 1855, the Empress Eugenie of France traveled to England on a state visit. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal on April 20 that Eugenie "was touched to tears when I gave her a bracelet with my hair." And where Europe went, America followed.
Many a Civil War soldier went to the battlefield with a snippet of his sweetheart's hair to keep close to his heart. He probably had given a bit of his own hair to his mother or sister before he left. Civil War daguerreotypes were often combined with hair tokens to create a complete remembrance of someone gone to war, or a soldier who would never return.
In addition to jewelry, the list of objects made with hair is long:
Samplers embroidered with hair used as thread;
wired hair art in a frame or shadow box to hang on a wall;
hair flower bouquets under glass domes;
purses and small baskets;
hair-trimmed boxes, linens, picture frames, etc.
friendship albums, or autograph albums containing locks of hair from friends and relatives, along with handwritten notes, and bits of poetry.
In the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition in New York City, a full tea set made of hair was displayed. The Paris exhibition of 1855 featured a life-sized picture of Queen Victoria, made entirely of hair!
In the 1800s, fancywork - doing needlework, embroidery, quilting, featherwork, shellwork, crochet, or hairwork to create decorative objects - became immensely popular with women of the upper and middle classes. Fancywork was deemed an appropriate feminine activity for those women who were expected to live a life of leisure, but not one of idleness.
Popular magazines and books, such as Godey's Lady's Book and Harper's Bazaar, published instructions on how to make ornamental household items, clothing and accessories, and extolled the virtues of handmade gifts: "[They] give a gratification that renews itself every time we look at them, ...given by the ...precious histories they hold."
Although hairwork could be quite complicated and time-consuming, women fashioned such things as purses, jewelry, floral art, and wreaths out of hair, to be given as gifts or displayed under glass domes and in shadow boxes hung on the parlor wall. Hair wreaths were often made using hair from several family members even from multiple generations of relatives. Names and relationships were usually noted, often in the framed picture itself, forming a genealogical record.
© 2019 Kathleen E. Boone