Thursday, March 18, 2010

Victorian Hair Wreath

I really should not judge an artifact in this way. As a museum, we keep artifacts which are representative of the history of our community. This history obviously takes many different forms and shapes. At our best, we are trying to collect artifacts which represent the breadth of human experience in the Annapolis Royal region. My problem is that there is one particular type of artifact that is found in many museum collections which I find horribly creepy. Not creepy in the watching a scary movie or having some fun with your friends on Halloween sort of creepy. I am talking about a shivers up the spine and a feeling of mild revulsion sort of creepy (I have been known to be overly dramatic by times). If you have not yet guessed from either the title of this post or the photographs, I am talking about Victorian hair wreaths.

I suppose I should explain exactly what these artifacts are because most people are unlikely to encounter a hair wreath today. Essentially, these are a memorial wreath made by twisting or sewing human hair around a wire to create intricate floral designs. Patterns and instructions for wreaths, as well as other hair related crafts, were found in places like Godey's Ladies Magazine. The hair flowers were arranged in a horse shoe type design with the open part of the shoe facing up. Wreaths of this sort were often made using hair from different members of the same family when they perished. The hair would either be saved in a hair keeper (creepy in its own right) or made into a design which could be expanded as the need arose. In some of the more elaborate examples I have seen there is actually a photograph of the deceased included in the middle of the design. When finished, the wreath would be placed in a shadow box and displayed in the house. If you had not already guessed, it is the human hair from dead people element which I find creepy. I should stress that not all hair wreaths were made as memorials. Some were made by schools or church groups as a project. While these are mildly less objectionable, I still find them creepy by association.

I must admit that I do admire the skill involved in creating a hair wreath. It would not be easy to work with a material as light or as fine as human hair. When I am able to put my visceral reactions behind me, I actually think that they are strangely beautiful. These artifacts are also an excellent entry point for discussions with visitors about the intricate world of Victorian mourning customs. The memorial wreath in this post comes from the collection at the O'Dell House Museum.

All for now,
RGS

5 comments:

  1. I much prefer the more modest mourning jewelry made from hair over the wreaths - neither have any creep factor for me really. I just find the wreaths a little too ostentatious.

    Using people's remains to mourn them has adapted with modern times. You can now have a LifeGem diamond, http://www.lifegem.com, made out of a portion of a persons cremated remains.

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  2. I think you've got it all wrong! Why do you mistakenly believe that the hair is cut from a deceased person? Couldn't you also accept the fact that it could come from a living person, in fact, many living persons? Note all the different colors of hair used in a single work of hair art...obviously not from the same person! Many people could and did contribute a lock of hair to be incorporated into a beautiful token of love and appreciation for the dearly departed. You have no right to assume anything as silly as cutting off dead people's hair, and your own "creepy" bias comes through loud and clear. Please be more educated about the subject before you speak.

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  3. I fully and gladly admit that I have a bias when it comes to hair wreaths. In fact, I seem to have gone on at some length about that particular bias. I also mentioned how hair could be kept in a hair keeper while a person was alive, how the hair of various deceased members of of a family could be included in a wreath (different colours) and that wreaths were sometimes made by church groups which were not memorials. I am sure that I also said something about appreciating the skill, artistry and sentiment. Best of all, you really do not need to believe me. Fell free to take a look at some of the other online material concerning hair wreaths.
    RGS

    http://www.rubylane.com/shops/sunnysidefarmsantiques/item/JJS1104

    http://www.victorianhairartists.com/VictorianHairFlowers.html

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  4. I'm doing a presentation on hair wreaths at a museum, my grandma revived the craft 40 years ago which her grandma and great grandma had done during periods which crafting supplies were at a minimum. When you visited a neighbor, you exchanged a lock of hair. All us grandchildren grew our hair long so she would have a supply. Nowhere in the stories that were passed down to her from her grandmother was there ever a mention of taking hair from a dead person.

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  5. Bossardet funeral home in Oxford, Michigan is decorated with tons of antiques including these wreaths or something akin to it. I Was told by the eldest Mr. Bossardet that they were from the deceased,there was no comment when the hair was collected pre or post mortem. It struck me creepy at the time but remembering older family members hair receivers/ collector, eased my qualms. The collected hair was often cleaned and re-used in wigs ,jewelry or in my family case,it was used to pad/ bolster the height of some hair do's.Usually in a hair net. This hair was typically cleaned out of her brush after washing and brushing out the "kinks". It was wound around the index finger to create a ring, which easily was put into the top of the receiver. I have heard of post mortem haircuts but I am not sure of a direct connection to the wreaths. Sometimes a lock from the back of the head would be cut and put into a locket of a sweetheart wife or daughter, even in a mans watch fob. I wish I had documentation for you, it was all word of mouth from Grandmothers and Great Aunt. There maybe much to learn from sites that are directly about the collectors/ hair receivers ( I have seen wood, plastic and porceline). Hopefully this is helpful ~ newlyirish

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