Museum  March 11, 2020  Allison C. Meier

How Victorians Mourned Loved Ones Through Hair Jewelry

New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. B. Pendleton Rogers, 1961.5a

Unidentified maker, Mourning ring containing lock of Alexander Hamilton’s hair presented to Nathaniel Pendleton by Elizabeth Hamilton, 1805. Gold, hair.

About a year following her husband’s 1804 death, Elizabeth Hamilton sent Nathaniel Pendleton—Hamilton’s second in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr—a letter about making a gold ring. She explained that Pendleton could wear it “in Remembrance of your beloved friend” and it would contain “a precious lock of his hair.” Both the letter and the ring—holding a delicate braid of Hamilton’s hair collected at his deathbed—are on view in Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry, currently at the New-York Historical Society through May 10. The compact exhibition of about thirty objects is drawn from the museum’s collections to explore how this now obscure practice was part of a larger culture of mourning in New York City and beyond.

New-York Historical Society, INV.12650

Unidentified maker, Brooch, c. 1860. Gold, enamel, pearls, hair.

“Hair has a long history of being a keepsake,” said Dr. Debra Schmidt Bach, Curator of Decorative Arts at the New York-Historical Society and organizer of the exhibition. She added that in the United States, the interest in representing the departed through objects was fueled by two momentous national losses: “George Washington’s death was one of them. Right after he died, you start to see a whole range of different kinds of memorabilia memorializing Washington. The second major event was Abraham Lincoln’s death.” 

Lincoln memorial badges—frequently adorned with black ribbons—were widely sold, sparking a trend that continued in processions honoring civic leaders and other prominent figures. Hair, too, was involved in the collective mourning for the late president: Life Cut Short includes a letter from his eldest son—Robert—to Gustavus Vasa Fox, Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy, containing a lock of his hair. Especially in an era before photography, these physical reminders of a person, which escaped the decay of the rest of the body, could guard the memory of the dead.

Gift of Anna Roelker, 1940.89

Unidentified maker, Watch chain, 1850−80. Hair, metal.

However, treasured locks of hair were not just collected as a mourning practice. Life Cut Short includes a box of unruly hair and whiskers from the artist John James Audubon, clipped in the 1840s by his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon to commemorate his return from his final Western expedition. It was also popular for Victorian women to create small tokens using plaits and knots of hair from both the living and the deceased in their handicrafts.

New-York Historical Society, Gift of George Hancock Servoss, 1906.3

John Ramage (c. 1748−1802), Mrs. John Pintard (Elizabeth Brasher, 1765–1838), verso, 1787. Watercolor on ivory, gold, hair.

“Hair work was often part of a woman’s training, even in the 18th century when it was related to needlework,” Bach said. “By the third quarter of the 19th century, it’s part and parcel of the whole movement of women making crafts to beautify their home.”

This included intricate dioramas and other displays. A large hair wreath in Life Cut Short was made over two years in the 1860s by Martha A. Rice. During that time, she got married and expanded the garden of hair flowers to reflect the growth of her home life. Later she added more details to represent their five children. Women like Rice could consult books and journals that offered advice on techniques and projects for hair work, in turn reinforcing it as a popular practice. An 1856 article in Home Journal stated that the “elegant fashion of wearing ornaments made of hair will, we hope, long continue” as it is “a dearly cherished memento, linking us fondly with those from whom we are separated by distance or death.”

New-York Historical Society, INV.774

Tiffany & Co., Mourning bracelet, New York, c. 1854. Hair, gold, diamonds, silver, textile.

There was also a hair jewelry industry that emerged with workshops and retailers to support this fashion of mourning. In New York City, many were located on Broadway alongside other popular stores. “New York by the mid to late 19th century was a capital for silver making and jewelry making,” Bach said. An elaborate 1854 mourning bracelet decorated with diamonds and hair was sold by Tiffany & Co. Others specialized in miniature paintings made from mixing pulverized hair with pigment. Life Cut Short features tools used by miniaturist John Ramage, who worked in New York between 1777 and 1794, such as the heavy hair chopper he employed to mince his material as well as sample cards showing potential designs.

New-York Historical Society, Gift of an anonymous donor, 1947.461

John Ramage (c. 1748–1802), Sample of hair jewelry designs used by miniaturist John Ramage, 1777−95. Ivory, watercolor, hair, leather, fabric.

While today it’s not unusual to save a lock from a child’s first haircut, this practice of wearing a piece of a person in their memory now seems strange. Yet it reflects the ongoing desire to maintain a connection beyond death, with these intimate objects keeping the presence of the departed tangibly close.

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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