Past Treasure of the Month – January 2010
The Rosenberg Library Museum featured Victorian hair jewelry as the January “Treasure of the Month.” Hair jewelry, whether handmade or professionally crafted, was popular during the height of romanticism and was a sentiment that characterized the Victorian era. These nineteenth century pieces were crafted as tokens of love, friendship, or in memoriam of a beloved family member. Pieces often took the form of brooches, necklaces, and bracelets, and were made stylish in Europe by Scandinavian crafters and Queen Victoria. The pieces ranged in date from 1840 to 1880. The museum’s collection of hair jewelry was donated by Helen Ebert, 1968; Shelby Z. Mowat, 1975; and Mrs. Catherine D. Gauss, 1985.
Hair, a universal symbol of life, was associated with the preservation of love after death in many cultures though the art of Swedish hair plaiting was believed to be the beginning of hair work. Brought to the rest of Europe by Swedish craftswomen, this craft allowed artists to create detailed embroidered landscapes using woven strands of hair. Through time, weaving styles became more intricate, and pearls, jewels, and other ornamentations were added. Queen Victoria made the new craft for hair art fashionable when she presented a bracelet made from her own hair to the Empress Eugenie, the beautiful wife of Napoleon III. It was from then on that hair jewelry was an important commodity. Spring fairs and markets attracted young ladies who traded locks of hair for ribbons, combs, and trinkets.
Because of its popularity and adaptation to all forms of craftwork, working with hair became a popular pastime and even a status symbol in the Victorian era. Most pieces of jewelry required long pieces of hair, often twenty to twenty-four inches long. Watch chains and bracelets were plaited with the hair of several family members to be given as a gift, and often had the most intricate and ingenious designs. Leading women’s magazines included instruction patterns for making brooches, cuff links, and bracelets at home. Local wood turners also made special molds which were needed for spiral weavings found in earrings, brooches, and bracelet patterns. Hair engagement and wedding rings had braids woven with the couple’s hair set into the rings’ settings.
Hair postcards and valentines were popular as well. Young women would send their photo and a lock of their hair in a locket to their sweethearts as sentimental mementos of their love. Hair albums too, containing collections of woven hair from past family members, were honored heirlooms that were passed down through generations. Each sample was paired with a tribute or poem in that person’s honor. Hair wreaths were crafted by many families and considered cherished works of art. These wreaths were assembled in the shape of a horseshoe which left room for additions as the family grew.
In the United States, hair jewelry became prominent at the beginning of the Civil War. Soldiers would often leave a lock of hair with their families to be kept safe in a locket or brooch which was added to mourning jewelry upon the soldier’s unfortunate death. These pieces of adornment often held a picture or memento of the deceased along with the styled lock of hair, and were worn for several months during the mourning process.
Victorian hair jewelry slowly became undesirable at the turn of the twentieth century after the death of Queen Victoria. Another factor was World War I. The increasing power of women’s rights and the popularity of the “short bob” hairstyle brought hair jewelry to a close. Hair jewelry still fascinates viewers, and though mostly found in museums and antique stores, the tradition of saving hair can still be found in today’s cultural practices. Baby albums across the world still hold locks of hair from “baby’s first haircut.”