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Catalog Data

Human hair, walnut frame
30 × 26 × 8 in. (76.2 × 66 × 20.3 cm)
Hair art
ca. 1847
Victorian (1837-1901)
Hair work piece in the form of a cross with a floral arrangement at the base. Hair crosses required much more hair to complete a design than an item of jewelry would. Because of this, large hair designs are often a composite made from hair contributed from the members of a family, church congregation, school, or other associations. Wreaths made from family groups often acted as a family tree or gave a family history of who had passed and in what order. In this case, individual flowers are made from human hair from a single family, dating back 200-300 years and originating in Ireland. The last flower was added in 1847. Names of the family members are wrapped on on the stems. The piece is framed in a walnut shadow box.
Label Text:
Hair work was created both professionally and by ladies in the home and was very popular from the late 1700s through most of 1800s. During the Victorian era, hair was highly prized. Women put much of their grooming energies into their hair: growing it long and keeping well cared for. Many women collected their own hair lost daily from their hairbrushes either for hair work or to make hair styling accessories for themselves. Furthermore, in the case of famous, or infamous, individuals, hair was actually sought after as a souvenir. Engaged and married couples exchanged hair as a token of their eternal love, and girls often exchanged locks of hair with their closest friends. Like love, hair is lasting, and it survived the individual when they were gone, whether separated by distance or death. Because of the romantic nature of hair as an intensely personal memento and its enduring qualities, hair work was seen as the embodiment of bond between individuals, their love entwined. It was also extremely popular in mourning paraphernalia because of its connotations as a token of deep affection and a relic that allowed a piece of the missing individual to stay present.
In the 1860s, hair work became an extremely popular home craft, and young ladies were encouraged to learn this art for themselves. Furthermore, homemade hair art was preferred, as sending off hair to be made into a wreath or item of jewelry by a company often resulted in many unscrupulous vendors supplying premade items made with hair from an unknown source. In addition to selling prefabricated items made of hair, merchants also sold patterns to follow, kits, and additional hair in a variety of colors that might be needed to complete a design. By following directions printed in magazines and booklets, hair was fashioned into flowers and leaves by twisting, braiding, and sewing it around shaped wire forms using tabletop and palette production methods. Horse hair was sometimes woven into pieces to provide stability or texture because it was coarse and strong, and this could be purchased or collected from one’s own stables. These wreaths were often placed in shadow boxes or under glass domes and displayed in the parlor. Hair work fell out of fashion towards the end of the nineteenth century. Many felt that it was old-fashioned compared with the new interior decorations, and its sentimental meaning came to be seen as morbid and vulgar.
hair  Search this
Hair in art  Search this
crosses (motifs)  Search this
Credit Line:
Smithsonian Gardens, Horticultural Artifacts Collection. Gift of John Garrity.
Accession number:
Restrictions & Rights:
Usage conditions apply
See more items in:
Horticultural Artifacts Collection
Data Source:
Smithsonian Gardens