Object of the Month: Hair today, gone tomorrow?

10 October 2011

 Mourning brooches containing the hair of a deceased relative. Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Mourning brooches containing the hair of a deceased relative. Wellcome Images

A lock of hair is a traditional lovers’ token. But this most everyday and intimate part of the human body can also be used in a more sorrowful context. Sarah Bond tells us more…

It is easy to miss these four little brooches, tucked away as they are in the far corner of Medicine Man alongside Egyptian canopic jars, mortuary crosses and even a shrunken head. But these examples of European mourning jewellery demonstrate an ambiguity at the heart of Henry Wellcome’s collection – the potential for the human subject to become material object after death.

Medicine Man is full of curios serving as literal or metaphorical extensions of the human body, and, like most medical collections, also features artefacts formerly part of the body itself. These brooches are no exception, each containing samples of human hair, neatly arranged and set behind glass.

Hair is certainly a material that occupies the narrow ground between person and thing – in life as much as death. Although it is ‘dead’ matter (as only the follicle contains living cells), once separated from the body, our hair is capable of outlasting us. These qualities of durability, alongside the fact that it is easily removed from the body and can be manipulated into almost any shape, led to the widespread use of hair in the 18th and 19th centuries as a tangible way to remember an absent loved one. Encased in a locket, ring or brooch, a lock of hair stood in for the recently departed, whose memory, it was hoped, would endure for as long as the jewellery itself.

But detached hair, alienated from its natural location on the body, can also provoke disgust – a reaction any of us who have found a stray hair in our food can identify with. The anthropologist Mary Douglas proposed that any ‘matter out of place’, including hair, becomes dirt, posing the threat of chaos and disorder unless carefully gathered and contained (1966).

As loose hair clippings might otherwise prove disturbing (especially those taken from a dead body), a process of transformation was necessary in order for them to become effective memory objects. ‘Working’ the hair into jewellery achieved this in various ways. Hair was coaxed into beautiful forms; fixed permanently into neat loops, curls, or weave, it was presented as a controlled and manageable substance, as it would have been on the body in life. It was then often mounted within gold or silver casings, and embellished with pearls – enduring materials that again acted to disguise the body’s frailty. Such opulent surroundings helped to showcase the hair (and, by extension, the person it represented) as precious and sacred.

Along with much of Wellcome’s collection, accurate catalogue entries for these particular items were never recorded. We can’t even be sure if they are all mourning pieces, despite their inclusion in the ‘End of Life’ case. Oblong brooches or ‘pins’ were very popular in the early 19th century, often set with gemstones, which coded for sentiments such as ‘love’ or ‘dearest’. Unless set with jet or black enamel, or engraved with an inscription honoring the deceased, they may well have been love tokens. The garnets used in one piece (centre foreground) indicate truth and virtue, and on close inspection the hair panel appears to have been plaited from two distinctly differently coloured strands of hair – possibly those of lovers?

The largest brooch, by contrast, is typically Victorian in style and probably dates from the second half of the 19th century. Featuring a graveyard scene, and the dedication ‘In Memory of A.G.’, the hair – presumably that of ‘A.G.’ – has been glued to form the branches of a weeping willow, a common analogy for the grief-stricken mourner. A third brooch, from a similar period, comprises two individual locks of hair, teased into waves. A larger, darker lock encloses a tiny, platinum blonde curl, the fine strands of which may well have been cut from the head of a child or infant. The hair is secured with gold thread and seed pearls, often used to represent tears.

But the smallest piece of jewellery overtly demonstrates another crucial function of hairwork – to act as memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death. By far the earliest example of the four, the reverse of the oval slide is engraved with the initials ‘W.H., 1689’. This locket incorporates a miniature skeleton, holding a scythe and an hourglass, alongside a bed of woven hair. In contemplating the remains of another – once person, now object – the wearer is prompted to consider his or her own similar fate.

During the 17th century mourning jewellery was largely confined to the European elite. Usually rings, these were produced to commemorate the death of influential individuals and served as status symbols, being distributed at funerals to secure the memory of the deceased. Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) willed that 129 mourning rings be given away at his funeral, in three grades of different quality. The most valuable rings were reserved for those with the closest relationship to the deceased, or the highest social status.

In contrast to the earlier pieces, the value of 18th and 19th century mourning jewellery was attributed to the unique sentimental worth of the hair itself, rather than the materials surrounding it. New techniques for working hair had contributed to its rising use, but it was the death of Prince Albert in 1861 which led to a real explosion in its popularity. Queen Victoria commissioned jewellery in Albert’s honour almost immediately, and continued to observe mourning for the rest of her life, a decision that was to have considerable influence on the wider population. Books of stylish patterns in hairwork were published, and machinery was developed to weave unprecedented quantities of the material.  Soon the jewellery became so fashionable it became possible to buy ready-made pieces reasonably cheaply – ironically losing the intimate personal connection that had popularised the use of hair in the first place.

Hair jewellery was increasingly produced in the home in an effort to re-personalise the trend, by individual women following patterns in manuals and popular magazines. Creating the pieces oneself also guarded against the substitution of ready-worked hair by unscrupulous jewellers.

Although we are of course distanced from an era that considered the wearing of hair to be acceptable and tasteful, some of the original power of these objects does comes across. Despite the anonymity of these few strands, we can speculate on the stories surrounding them – the lives of those they once belonged to, those who wore them, and how they went on to become part of Wellcome’s collection.

Sarah Bond is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.