Artworks with Human Hair: Victorian Pastimes and Mourning Customs

By Rachel Herrington, Learning Services Interim

I really enjoyed watching the first season of the television series, “Victoria.” Eager in my anticipation of season two I thought I would provide fellow viewers with some insight into the curious mourning practice of hair art.

Hair art did not begin in the Victorian period, but increased in popularity during the 1800s. These keepsakes were special mementos of loved ones, usually displayed in jewelry or artwork. Victorian society viewed them partly as family tradition and partly as a mourning ritual by which to remember their deceased friends and family.

According to information found on the Birmingham Museum website, it was during Queen Victoria’s reign that society incorporated these objects into formalized mourning customs, especially as Victoria spent a large part of her reign in mourning after Prince Albert’s death in 1861.

Families would display these artworks in shadow box frames. As highly regarded family heirlooms, they passed them from generation to generation.

This practice was not confined to England, but also was part of American culture.

Here at the Kentucky Historical Society we have several beautiful examples of hair art including a family tree made of the corresponding family member’s hair. Mary Stout made the family tree shown in this blog in the mid-19th century. The tree is comprised of knots and twists with tiny seed pearls interspersed between the varying shades of brown hair from the George and Elizabeth Threlkeld Cardwell family of Shelby County. It is part of our exhibition, “Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Art Treasures,” in the Old State Capitol.

The Victorians also used hair to make other personal items such as wreaths. The hair wreath shown here is from the same family as the tree, but this time the artwork is larger and includes an additional component set within the horseshoe-shaped design.

The white hair is that of one of the family’s great-grandmothers. This piece is located in the Victorian section of our exhibit, “A Kentucky Journey.”

If you as impatient as I am for the next season of “Victoria” to begin, it might help you fill your time to see how Kentuckians were practicing the same social customs popularized during Queen Victoria’s long and memorable reign.

KHS would love people to visit and see these pieces. If you cannot get to Frankfort, however, you can see them and other pieces of hair work, on our online artifact catalog.

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