Hair Jewelry as Tokens of Love


Giving a lock of one’s hair has been a practice dating back to prehistoric times. Hair was given to another person for sentimental reasons, as a token of admiration or kept as a remembrance of the dead. But, whatever the reason, the underlying purpose has always been as an expression of love.

The custom of creating hair work in the form of jewelry began as far back as the sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries, reaching its peak during the reign of Queen Victoria in the late 1800’s.  Its popularity continued until the early twentieth century.  Although it can still be obtained today, the practice has all but disappeared.

Gold hollow-ware and blue enamel brooch. Seed pearls surround the center oval crystal, with brown woven hair under the crystal. The inscription reads: "F.D. Webb/Died March 20, 1834/H. L. Webb/Died Oct. 12, 1846"

Gold hollow-ware and blue enamel brooch. Seed pearls surround the center oval crystal, with brown woven hair under the crystal. The inscription reads: “F.D. Webb/Died March 20, 1834/H. L. Webb/Died Oct. 12, 1846”

A symbol of life, hair has been linked with death and funerals in many cultures. Egyptian tomb paintings show pharaohs and queens exchanging hair tokens. When Mexican women cut their hair they saved it in pottery jars and had it buried with them so their soul would not have to look for it before passing into the after world.

During the eighteenth century the evolution of hair work advanced rapidly. In the 1800’s it became a commercial industry in Scandinavia when women in small villages plaited (or braided) hair, then sold it at fairs and markets. Since residents in these towns were extremely poor, there was no market for the product, so the women travelled around Europe plying their wares. By the middle of the century hair jewelry was an expensive product which was commercially sold all over the continent.

Around the time of the Civil War hair work had caught on in the United States. Soldiers leaving to join the fighting left locks of hair with their families. If the soldier didn’t return home the hair was made into mourning jewelry.

Rules were applied to the custom of giving hair work. It could be given as a declaration of love between a man and a woman, but only if they were betrothed. A girl could give a lock of hair to a man if he requested it, but it could not be set in jewelry. Exchanging hair between family members was very common especially if the giver would be absent for a long period of time. During the nineteenth century when mourning pieces were mass produced, money could be left in a person’s will for the commissioning of a memorial piece in their honor. If pieces were already owned by the decedent they would also be allocated in the will. There is evidence of this as far back as 1616 when William Shakespeare designated mourning rings in his final instructions.

From around 1850 until the early 1900’s hair work was a pastime practiced in the drawing rooms of many Victorian homes.

Black enamel and gold brooch. Oval crystal over reddish hair. The inscription reads: "In memory of Frances Delord Webb and Maria K. Walworth"

Black enamel and gold brooch. Oval crystal over reddish hair. The inscription reads: “In memory of Frances Delord Webb and Maria K. Walworth”

Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’sMagazine printed instructions and patterns that women would use to make such items as brooches, bracelets, earrings, watch fobs and cuff links. Hair was also used to create landscapes, floral designs and wreaths which incorporated dried flowers, beads and chenille stems. Many times the hair used in these decorative pieces for the home came from more than one family member, and the names and dates of birth and death were written on the back of the frame.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, the craze for hair jewelry died out, especially with the death of Queen Victoria, the beginning of World War I and the increase of freedom for women who were no longer confined to the house by the dictates of society.

 

Written by Vickie Evans