When human hair could braid two hearts together

Through the 1800s, Americans showed their feelings with hair. Hair was sewn into notebooks, put under glass in lockets and sent through the mail to loved ones.
Through the 1800s, Americans showed their feelings with hair. Hair was sewn into notebooks, put under glass in lockets and sent through the mail to loved ones. PHOTO: REUTERS

Before chocolates reigned on Valentine's Day, a tuft of your beloved's tresses was the most fashionable sign of affection

This year, Americans will spend more than US$18 billion (S$25 billion) on Valentine's Day, which falls today. That is according to the National Retail Federation.

Americans and many others around the world will show their love and affection by buying heart- shaped chocolate boxes, sparkling wine, flowers, cards and jewellery. Nowhere on the list is hair.

Imagine getting a keepsake made of hair from someone's head! It would seem morbid. But through the 1800s, Americans showed their feelings with hair.

Hair was sewn into notebooks, put under glass in lockets and sent through the mail to loved ones. A large industry for hair products produced earrings, bracelets, necklaces and wall decorations. While the Valentine's Day industry seems recent, Americans have always mixed retail and sincerity; shopping and emotional relationships.

I saw my first piece of hairwork when I was 16 at an antiques show at the Crossroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska. Among the postcards and other junk, I found a large button with a woven front of brownish fabric. Though the vendor assured me that the "fabric" was not hair, I bought it for 25 cents and later decided it had to be hair. It was creepy, and yet I kept thinking about the loving gesture of the hair enclosed by the frame of the button's edge.

When I was getting my doctorate in history, my thoughts returned to that oddly compelling button as I tried to understand how 19th-century Americans used both handmade and commercial objects to define themselves, their memories and relationships, and even death and life. And so I began to study hair art.

Hair was not just symbolic of the person, it was the person - her body, her living material. It was a far more potent carrier of memory than a photograph which only revealed the appearance of a loved one; hair physically brought that person close.

OBJECTS IN RELATIONSHIPS

These days, if you want to feel close to a loved one who is far away you are likely to look at a photo, or even to browse their Facebook or Instagram account. But in earlier times, you might have looked at hair.

In 1828, a few days after Valentine's Day, Walter Mason Oddie, a landscape painter, was at his desk musing about the love of his life, his wife Julia. He unfolded a small scrap of paper to gaze upon a lock of her hair. Three years earlier, he had married his Julia, Walter wrote in his diary, and she was "the constant object of my thoughts (who) has remained an inmate of my bosom - Time has no effect upon my affection".

After that reflection, Walter folded the piece of paper and slid it back into a symbolic bed - an envelope marked "Julia's March 1824". It was a home for the hair and a memory for his heart. Possessing someone's hair was a deeply sentimental way to possess that person.

Hair could soften even the hardest of hearts in the most hard-bitten of men. In 1870, Adelbert Ames, a 35-year-old former US general in the Union army and a senator from Reconstruction-era Mississippi - not exactly a softie - met Blanche Butler from Massachusetts. Soon after they met, they were engaged and Blanche sent him a locket with her photograph and her hair. She teased: "I am now debating in my own mind the propriety of putting a lock of hair opposite the picture."

Adelbert swooned as only a well- tested fighter of a man could do: "Dear Blanche, I was very glad, happy, to receive your beautiful token - not beautiful, that is secondary - it was dear and precious. Your sweet face and a lock of your beautiful hair. Your hair seemed to bring you very near me. I thank you, Love, for the locket, the picture, and the hair. I shall always wear them."

For Adelbert and Walter, the hair was much better than a "likeness" or a photograph. Hair was a living part of the person: Its colour did not noticeably fade over time, the texture and feel remained the same as it did on the head of the person, and whether the person was living or dead, their memory resided in the lock of hair.

Photographic images distorted appearances. Hair was not just symbolic of the person, it was the person - her body, her living material. It was a far more potent carrier of memory than a photograph which only revealed the appearance of a loved one; hair physically brought that person close.

MIXING SHOPPING AND EMOTION

Hairwork in the 19th century could be as simple as Julia's lock of hair or Blanche's hair nestled in a locket on Adelbert's watch chain.

It could also be much more ornate, and more about friendship and family than romantic love. Hairwork was often made-to-order by jewellers, and the ornate pieces were often worn with a customer's best outfit. Hairwork could be finely woven beads on a necklace or bracelets of flat-braided and woven hair to be worn against the skin.

Hair was made into wreaths that hung in parlours, into three-dimensional bouquets of ornately knotted hair flowers and leaves kept under glass cloches. Catalogues offered page after page of the same designs, across the country.

This was not a curious gothic- inspired affectation at the time; wearing hair jewellery or displaying hairwork in one's parlour was to exhibit the best taste in fashion and sentiment. What was more, it demonstrated that the owner was woven into a web of friends and family and dear ones, displayed in her ears or on a parlour table.

Hairwork was also a perfect consumer product that worked with Americans' rapidly innovating retail culture. Deeply personalised in material, manufacture and meaning, it was also generically respected and understood. It was a material so innately personal that the market could not besmirch its sincerity.

American fiction, short stories in women's magazines, the advertisements for the jewellery all assured potential customers that hairwork, while mainstream, was about one's private sentiment. But that hairwork was likely made in large workshop factories, such as the National Artistic Hair Work Company in Chicago. This balance of the personal and the corporate is as familiar to us as the use of Facebook to share life's deepest experiences.

But in the 20th century, its meaning began to change. By the 1920s, jewellery wholesalers were selling ready-made hairwork (so, who knew whose hair it was made of!), but many saw hairwork as a mouldering relic of the Victorian age. It fell out of favour because clothing styles went towards lighter colours and fabrics, and decoration in houses emphasised clean lines.

More importantly, the way we showed sincerity changed. In hairwork's heyday, sincerity was a sentimental expression of honestly held emotions; by the 1920s, effusive shows of emotion seemed overwrought and the ornate lines of hairwork fussy and disingenuous.

Today, we strive to be restrained in our emotional displays - but some things have not changed. Jewellers sell upscale "personalised" beads and charms to represent one's children or family.

At my local grocery store in Ohio, the checkers wear rows of Badge-A-Minit pin buttons emblazoned with a daughter's basketball team photo or a grandchild's kindergarten portrait. As I interact with them, I know they are in a web of relationships - they love and they are loved by many.

We are still searching for ways to represent relationships that are not about work or the market - the most intimate connections we share with others we want memorialised in an object we can hold, store and go back to again and again. We want to buy a way to stop time, to remember the "real" person we love.

Walter folded his Julia's hair back up in its paper bed, and Blanche's locket still exists attached to Adelbert's watch chain. Time, as Walter said, has had little effect on affections.

• Helen Sheumaker is a lecturer at Miami University of Ohio. She is author of Love Entwined: The Curious History Of Hair Work.

•This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'When human hair could braid two hearts together'. Print Edition | Subscribe