Written by Staci Fromwiller - published in the March, 1996 newsletter of Historic Prince William.
Long before photography was invented, and when portraits were outside the realm of affordability for the majority of people, it was as desired then as it is today to have a personal keepsake of a loved one. During Victorian times this was accomplished by making objects out of human hair - that of the special person's or one's own.
Sometimes the objects were medallions in the form of initials in gold on a background of woven hair set under crystal. Often the hair was spread out to look like a tree, usually a weeping willow. To create a truly mournful effect a suitably grief stricken looking young widow was seen to be leaning against a tomb. These were often worn as a type of memorial jewelry to a recently deceased loved one.
Other times the pieces were made as a remembrance to a still living family member, best friend, husband or sweetheart. In addition to hair, these pieces included seed pearls (as symbols of tears if the two were to be separated), other semi-precious stones, watercolors and enamel to make a more elaborate and pretty picture. Whole pieces were made from hair - earrings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches and rings - and many a Civil Was soldier carried off to camp a watch chain woven from a beloved woman's hair, be she mother, sister, sweetheart or wife.
After the Civil War there was a trend to producing artwork from hair. Hair from different people in different colors was used to create pictures and mosaics under glass domes or frames. Hair trees were created from hair from each family member. Also used were pictures of the family, ribbons, dried flowers, butterflies, and even stuffed birds. Wreaths were also made of hair and other "natural" objects.
While professionals were available to do the hair weaving and artwork, women were encouraged to do the work themselves. This was for two reasons. The first was to guard against "unscrupulous tradesmen" who might substitute someone else's or even horsehair, which was easier to work with, if materials were lacking. The second was to endow the piece with even more sentimental value since it was painstakingly and lovingly labored over by one's self.
Books were written to teach how to do the work. "A Jewelers Book of Patterns In Hair" (1864), and "Lock of Hair" (1871) , advised that tweezers, knife curling iron, background plaque and glue to stiffen and affix the hair, were needed in addition to the hair and decorative items. Lockets and frames were available ready-made to finish the piece.
Hair was obtained from cuttings of the deceased's head or collected from hair brushes. Prior to the mid-1800's it was stored in cloth bags until enough was obtained in order to make a piece. In the last half of the century, makers of porcelain and ceramics began to make pieces designed specifically to hold hair. These pieces were known as "hair receivers" and were sometimes made as part of a multi-piece dresser set consisting of receiver, powder jar, hat pin holder, brush, comb, nail buffer and tray. Most often, however, they were made as single pieces. Primarily made in porcelain and ceramic, they were also made of glass, silver, silver plate, wood and celluloid.
The glass types often had brass or silver tops. A variety of shapes and sizes were produced: most common are round and oval shapes. They consist of the receiver bottom and a removable top with a round hole in the middle through which to put the hair. Some were made with graceful legs or pedestals to rest upon, but most have flat bottoms. Rarer shapes are of animals and other figures. Many porcelain pieces were hand painted with floral or oriental designs on both the receiver and top.
When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria plunged into deep mourning. To be "politically correct" her subjects had been forced to wear much mourning jewelry, made of hair and other objects. When she began to show signs of leniency in the late 1800's the practice of wearing mourning jewelry, and soon afterwards that of making hairwork pieces in general, was abandoned with little looking back. Hairwork pieces are rare and so fairly expensive. A glassed framed family tree made from hair will sell for several hundreds of dollars.
But you can bring back the sentiment of the era without such expense. Hair receivers can be found at flea markets and antique stores and depending on intricacy of design, condition and maker, can be purchased starting at $20. Nestled among other items such as a lace fan, opera glasses, gloves, perfume bottle, silver brush and mirror, a hair receiver makes a very pretty, and unique addition to a Victorian dresser collection.
Editor's Note: Staci Fromwiller was an active member of Historic Prince William until she moved out of the area to manage a Bed and Breakfast in Round Hill.