In the 19th century, people turned their loved ones' tresses into macabre memento mori.
Image courtesy of The Wellcome Library, London
Hidden within Victorian Era jewelry collections are some supremely creepy keepsakes. At first glance, the fibers woven into these 19th-century bracelets, earrings, brooches, and even walking stick handles look like rust-colored thread, but closer inspection reveals that the shiny strands are actually human hair. And though they’re nearly 200 years old, these intricately-arranged cilium look hot off the crown of the head they sprouted from.
The hair-accessory craze, called “mourning jewelry,” was a Victorian trend of fashioning wearable trinkets out of the hair of deceased loved ones. Also called “hairwork,” the mementos were painstakingly handcrafted. Transforming locks into a remembrance of the dearly departed was an act of utmost devotion. And what’s remarkable is that more often than not, these items were constructed out of more than one family member’s hair. Some even incorporated the fur of deceased pets.
Hair is a strong material with exceptional longevity, and its history as a tangible keepsake originates much earlier than the 1800s. “Hair is one of the most personal and uniquely individual things a person can give away, knowing it will serve almost endlessly as a memento. Humans have been saving hair for as long as we've been burying our dead,” Sondra Reierson, Associate Curator at the Minnesota Historical Society, tells The Creators Project. “The act of giving hair has always been a sentimental and personal one, which speaks to the relationship between those involved. Pairing the remarkable qualities of hair and traditions of gift-giving with jewelry is a natural fit.”
In the Victorian Era, hairwork was an affordable, middle-class activity, similar to knitting or crocheting. Since the supply of flowing locks was nearly unlimited, the custom spread throughout Europe and the colonies, growing especially popular during the American Civil War. “Hairwork was an expression of genuine sentiment and was accessible to those, especially women, who could spend painstaking hours working hair into a memorial or reminder of a loved one,” Reierson says.
Hairwork templates were published in ladies newspapers and the craft caught on partly thanks to celebrities. “English hairwork was popularized by royalty, especially Queen Victoria, who wore Prince Albert's hair in lockets and brooches for decades following his death,” Reierson says. “Victorian hairwork provides a window into a time when, like Victoria, so many suffered the loss of loved ones either by death or distance. But it also speaks to etiquette in romance, where the exchange of personal mementos, like hair, were essential to courtship.”
Not only did the Victorians romanticize loved ones’ deceased bodies, they viewed death very differently from us. “The Victorian era is generally known for its exaggerated sentimentality and elaborate rules governing social behavior; hairwork folds beautifully into both,” Reierson says.
Like any trend, hairwork eventually lost some of its intrinsic value. “As ready-made goods took center stage in the 20th century, a customer could not guarantee that hair sent out for work would be the same hair they received in the finished product,” Reierson explains. “Also, mourning culture began to decline after the 1880’s, and the popularity of hair jewelry followed suit. As the rigidity of Victorian culture relaxed, hair jewelry began to seem old-fashioned and backward. However, while the popularity of hair jewelry has ebbed and flowed, hair workers are active today, and organizations like the Victorian Hairwork Society aim to keep it that way.”
To learn more about hairwork and other spooky historical trends, check out the Minnesota Historical Society’s website, here.