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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

How hair became a fashionable way to remember the dead.

Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

On October 25, 2007, the Heritage Auction Gallery of Dallas sold a strand of black hair taken from the dead body of revolutionary leader Che Guevara. The lone bidder—Bill Butler, a book dealer—paid an eye-popping $119,500 for the relic. At the time, Butler said he wanted to add a piece of this great leader to his collection of 1960s memorabilia. Earlier in the year, the same auction house had sold a lock of President Abraham Lincoln’s hair for $11,095 and one of Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart’s hair for $44,812. Hair from famous people commands high prices. But why?

For collectors, hair houses the spirit of the person who grew it. By possessing the hair, collectors feel as if they own a tangible piece of that person. There are many different cultures—past and present—that believe hair houses a person’s life force. References to the spirits embedded in hair both attached to and separated from the body are found in myth and culture. For example, in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, mother of the nine muses, stores her remarkable memory in her very long hair. In the Bible, Samson stored his strength not in his muscles but in his hair—so when his two-timing lover cut his hair, he lost his remarkable might and didn’t recover it until his hair regrew. In Japanese tradition, the sumo wrestler’s force resides in his hair; cutting a sumo’s long hair during the retirement ceremony signals the end of his fighting career. Many people have believed that the essence of a person is connected to hair, and it was a common thought that wounding hair—even if detached from the body—could cause bodily harm. By this way of thinking, West African Yoruba people protect their cut hairs lest the spirit embedded in them come under the influence of a malefactor who could exploit them. Folklore from more than a few cultures has stories of demonic sorcerers (or sorceresses) who apply love potions to captured hairs in order to facilitate an unwanted seduction. Hair has also been used in votive offerings, as when Japanese women sacrificed locks of hair to shrines for the safe return of their loved ones, or when modern Indian women donate their hair to temples in expiation for their sins.

People have long cherished hair as memory pieces or religious relics, but the fascination grew in popularity at the time of the English Civil War following the execution of King Charles I. Citizens who had supported the king wore strands of the dead regent’s hair in their jewelry as a token of mourning as well as a declaration of political affiliation. Soon, the custom spread beyond the monarchy to people making a similar kind of mourning jewelry for their own loved ones. These so-called memento mori pieces (Latin for “remember you must die”) typically consisted of a gold locket suspended on a black velvet band. The face of the locket contained a tress of hair from a loved one in a design representing some symbol of death, such as a small coffin, skeleton, hourglass, or gravedigger’s shovel. Inscribed in the locket center was the deceased’s name. One of the most famous celebrants of the memento mori tradition was England’s Queen Victoria. Not only did she enjoy a long rule during the grandest time of the British Empire but she also had an unusual marriage, as royal marriages go. Her consort was Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a well-educated, innovative, and progressive scholar who was also her indispensable adviser. When he died in 1861, Victoria fell into a long and deep period of mourning. Although she never fully overcame the loss, she found some consolation in keeping Albert’s hair close to herself in lockets, pendants, and rings.

Perhaps inspired by Victoria, 19th-century American women treasured the spiritual properties of hair. To them, clipped hair was used to convey messages of friendship, love, mourning, and family bonds. They kept hair of loved ones close to their everyday life by means of the jewelry they wore, on framed works hanging from their walls, and in albums on their desks and shelves. Martha Washington, an avid devotee of hair jewelry, took hair from state visitors and fashioned them into lockets or frames. Abigail Adams, wife of the second U.S. president, John Adams, had a brooch and stick pin containing hairs from herself, her husband, and her son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth U.S. president. Victorian poet Robert Browning wore a gold ring containing his and his wife’s entwined hair. On the band was the inscription “Ba” and the engraving “God Bless You, June 29, 1861,” the day his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, died.

But hair locks have long signified more than just friendship, family bonds, or mourning. An exchange of hair has been meaningful in romantic relationships—though in many different ways. In some cases, when a shy young man asked a woman for a hair lock, he was actually initiating a marriage proposal. However, it is also true that some lotharios—with very little intent on marriage—kept tresses to record conquests. Additionally, women have used hair as a seduction tool. In fact, Lady Caroline Lamb flaunted her on-again-off-again affair with Lord Byron by sending him a tress of her pubic hair in a gold locket bearing a miniature portrait of Byron. There is no record of what he did with it; we do know, however, that he stopped seeing Caroline shortly thereafter.

As long as a relationship thrived, a person proudly wore his lover’s hair, but once passions cooled, the hair-gift took on a different aspect. Consider “The Funeral,” written in 1633 by British poet John Donne. In the poem, the rejected lover requests that “WHOEVER comes to shroud me, do not harm,/Nor question much, That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm.” The hair encircling his arm comes from a lady who now refuses him. The poem is not explicit about why the lover bestowed hair on the narrator in the first place, but we can assume there had been serious lovemaking (or at least intentions thereof) in the past. In the last line, he scornfully adds, “That since you would have none of me, I bury some of you.” To this rejected lover, hair is more than symbolic of his love; it’s a real part of her and, in the end, he has his vengeance.

To create these hair mementos, people most often simply collected a lock of hair (either from themselves or from a deceased or living person with whom they had a deep personal attachment), cleaned it in boiling water, dried it, and then shaped it or tied it in artistic arrangements. In some cases, the hair was pulverized, mixed with a glue, and used as a form of paint to fashion the ornament. People also placed hair in letters and albums using creative and intricate designs with adjacent expressions of love in the form of poems, essays, or drawings.

Although hair art started as an inexpensive gesture that all might enjoy, it ultimately became the purview of mostly middleclass women who had the luxury of time to develop both the craft and the close friends with whom they shared it. By the mid-19th century, the demand for hair art grew to such an extent that many women sought the help of professional artists to do the work. With the introduction of professionals, the art became more widely available and the messages became less personal and more commercial. It did not, however, become cheaper. For those who bought it, professionally made hair jewelry was expensive. An 1855 issue of Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book advertised mourning necklaces ranging in cost from four to seven dollars each at a time when the average wealth per capita in the United States was a little over $300. By the late 19th century, the ardor for hair jewelry faded, in part because women had new opportunities outside the home as well as another vehicle for recording one’s physical self: photography. By the start of the 20th century, interest in memento mori pieces had stopped almost entirely, viewed as morbid, sentimental, and just plain old-fashioned.

Excerpted with permission from Hair: A Human History, by Kurt Stenn. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.