Artifact Corner: Victorian Hair Wreath

Hi Everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a Victorian hair wreath. Yup you heard me correctly, a wreath made of human hair. This was a fairly common practice in the Victorian period. Let’s learn a bit more about the custom of hair jewelry and decorations during the mid to late 1800’s.

So, why did this trend start? The Victorian Era was filled with morbid romantic literature, with authors like Percy Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and many more. Their works were capturing the mood of their generation. Victorian medicine was slowly working its way to modernity, but not fast enough for the array of diseases cutting people down. Life expectancy was around 40 years old for men, and 42 years for women in the year 1850, and by the year 1900 it had not risen that much, being only 45 for men and 50 for women. Loss and losing people you loved was common, and people coped with it as best they could. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s husband Albert passed away, and so began her 40 year long mourning process. Inspired by their Queen’s grief, England adopted cultural mourning practices like wearing black and creating memento moris, or items that remembered a lost loved one. It swept through the English middle and upper-classes and soon traveled abroad to other western nations. Eventually, the practice of wearing a loved one’s hair encased in a locket or brooch would evolve into the artistic, textile-reminiscent trade of making hair wreaths.

Hair wreaths were almost exclusively made by women. They were mostly made by the loved ones of the deceased as well. Most women in the Victorian period were skilled with a needle and thread and embroidery, which served them well in creating these works of art. To make a hair wreath, hair was collected from the deceased and formed into a shape. These shapes were normally natural motifs, usually flowers. They would then be woven together and added to a horseshoe-shaped wreath. The top was not connected and remained open to symbolize the ascent heavenward. The hair in the center of the wreath belonged to the most recently deceased family member; it would remain until another family member died, then be moved to the side to make room for the hair of the newly deceased loved one. Hair could also be woven into plaits or braids and made into bracelets, or placed in lockets and worn as necklaces. It was a way of keeping a physical piece of your departed loved one near you at all times.

If you are interested in learning more about Victorian death customs and practices, we have a fantastic event coming up at the end of this month. Our event called Weep No More, Victorian Mourning Customs. Step back in time with us as we explore things like our collections of hair jewelry, and discover why portraits and mirrors were covered in the home when people died. You’ll also have a chance to taste coffin cookies, and believe it or not, they are quite delicious, despite their name. There are so many other bizarre and fascinating customs as well. Tours are 4pm and 6pm on Friday, the 21st and 28th. Tours are 2pm, 4pm, and 6pm on Saturday, the 22nd and 29th. Tickets are $15 for the general public and $10 for museum members. For more information, call 518-561-1035 or email the museum at [email protected]. This hair wreath is in fantastic condition, and is a unique glimpse at grieving and loss in the Victorian period, and we are so lucky to have it our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by, and we look forward to seeing you at the end of the month!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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