People are either fascinated or disgusted by the idea of hair jewelry. I happen to be fascinated.
Many museums have some kind of hair jewelry or a hair wreath in their collection. Understanding the context in which people created hair jewelry can help museum visitors appreciate this unique craft.
The Victorians were extremely sentimental. Flowers and gemstones had meanings. Young women had an unspoken language through their folding fans.
Hair jewelry was the ultimate sentimental keepsake.
Although the camera had been invented, it was hardly common. The average person certainly did not have one. And only the wealthy could afford the high cost of a painted portrait.
Today it’s hard to imagine not having a photo of someone we loved who passed away. But that was commonplace in the Victorian era.
Making jewelry out of hair kept the memory of a loved one alive.
The popularity of hair jewelry soared during the Civil War as wives and sweethearts exchanged locks of hair with their soldiers, which was usually made into some kind of ornament – watch fobs for the men and all kinds of trinkets for the ladies.
Hair jewelry was also exchanged to mark important occasions like weddings and betrothals. At the time, long hair styles were fashionable, so there was plenty of hair to work with!
The woman’s magazine Godey’s Ladys Book sold hair jewelry as early as 1850, with hair supplied by the customer. Breastpins, earrings, and bracelets were priced from $1.50 to $15 a piece.
Toward the end of the 19th century, several pattern books appeared to instruct amateur hair jewelry makers. This do-it-yourself movement became popular partially to ensure that the right hair was being used. (A trinket made of someone else’s hair hardly held the same sentimental value!)
Hair wreaths were created using hair from many different members of the family. In essence, it was a family tree! When you closely inspect a hair wreath, you can see many different shades of hair color.
Today there are only a handful of people left in the world who know how to make hair jewelry. But over a century ago, it was incredibly popular.
Next time you visit a historic house, ask your tour guide if there are any hair wreaths or jewelry in their collection. The intricate patterns are truly amazing to look at!