Last week, I was sorting through a box of unprocessed materials labeled “miscellaneous scrapbooks” when I found an old Bible. Based on the inscription in the front, the Bible seems to have belonged to the Matchett family of Ithaca, Darke, County, Ohio.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure how an 1857 Bible qualifid as a “miscellaneous scrapbook,” but then I started leafing through it. There were a number of items tucked into the pages of the Bible, including this:
I did a bit of a double-take as this “insert” passed my eyes. I think I jumped a little, and I might have even made a little yelp. Sure, maybe that seems silly now, in hindsight, but at the moment, I really wasn’t expecting to find a squirrel—er, I mean, long, thin ponytail—inside a 150-year-old Bible!
As I looked more carefully through all the pages of the Bible, I found no less than 18 different locks of hair, including a braid, two small wreaths, and another ponytail (strawberry-blonde this time). I also found quite a few other items, including obituaries, manuscript papers, and even a tintype photograph.
I carefully removed all of these items from the Bible, putting them into more suitable archival enclosures, to be kept with the book. But with every “ew” and “ohmygod another one”, I kept thinking to myself, What would possess someone to tuck all these locks of hair into a Bible?
Which led me to another question: Why would people save these locks of hair at all? Now I’m not completely clueless; I had some ideas, of course — the most likely of these being that the hair probably belonged to a dead relative.
In attempting to research this subject, I did not have much luck in finding any comprehensive (let alone scholarly) sources. (Perhaps this is such a seemingly simplistic topic that no one thinks it necessary to write more than a line or two about it?)
I was just about to give up, when I finally stumbled onto a blog post by the FIDM Museum (a fashion/jewelry museum in Los Angeles) concerning “Hairwork jewelry”. (And I was stunned at the date of the blog post – May 16, 2011 — less than a week before I made my discovery. What a weird coincidence.)
Now, thank goodness I didn’t find any actual “hair jewelry” (but go check out their post – it’s very interesting!). But the blog post gives a good succinct explanation of the whole “hair memento” thing:
“Locks of hair have long served as sentimental and tangible reminders of deceased or far-away friends and close relations. Among family, friends and romantic partners, exchanging a lock of hair was a sign of mutual esteem and deep affection. Upon the death of a loved one, locks of hair were often cut and kept as a way to both honor and remember the dead” (“Hairwork Jewelry,” FIDM Museum Blog, 5/16/2011).
That pretty well sums up most of the snippets I was able to find “here and there” in other sources. (One of the most interesting “sources” I found while researching this topic was a Google timeline of references to hair as keepsakes. I didn’t even know Google did such a thing – plus it was really interesting to see the references, many of which came from literature.)
In summary, here are some of the reasons why people might keep a lock of hair:
- Baby’s first haircut. This makes sense; I think I have heard of that.
- Another hair-related milestone. For instance, my mother had longh hair when I was born but cut it short when I was a baby. (I wonder if I started pulling it, or if she just needed something a simpler ‘do?) Anyway, she put it in a ponytail and cut it off all at once; she still has it.
- Send a lock to a distant friend/relative as a memento.
- Request a lock of hair from a “celebrity” as a memento. (I don’t think this would be very well-received by today’s celebrities. However, a young lady once asked for a hair locks as a memento of a visit from George Washington and Anthony Wayne, and the two soldiers obliged her.)
- From a soldier heading off to war as a token of friendship or ”something to remember me by,” in case he died on the battlefield. That way, the person already had a lock of his hair, should they wish to have one — because it might not be available later if he didn’t make it home for burial.
- As a “memento mori” (loosely translated from Latin as “reminder of death”)
The memento mori seems to be the most common reason for keeping a lock of hair – one last thing to remember the person. This was apparently particularly popular in the 19th century. I can definitely see why it would have been popular before photography became widely available - you might not have any other visual representation of the physical person, so hair was a lasting memento. (Hair is a pretty good choice, too: it doesn’t really break down easily, and taking it doesn’t disfigure the corpse. Definitely the least gross part of a deceased person that you could “collect”!)
I did find a few examples of memento mori hair locks from famous people:
- A watch owned by Thomas Jefferson and containing a lock of hair from his wife Martha (who died in 1782) is soon to be auctioned off at Christie’s Auction House in New York (see a photo). (If you’ve got $40-80k, you could make it yours!)
- Jane Austen’s niece received a lock of her hair after Jane died in 1817 (read article); it is on display at a museum in Chawton (see photo).
- There is a fascinating story surrounding a lock of Beethoven’s hair taken after his 1827 death (read about it).
- The New York Public Library has a lock of Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley’s hair taken after her 1851 death. As a matter of fact, it’s going to be on display for soon as part of an exhibit commemorating the library’s 100th anniversary (see article with photo).
A lot of the items I’ve mentioned or referenced in this post talk about different things that people would do with the locks of hair they collected: such as putting them into a piece of jewelry (as Jefferson did) or making jewelry or display items out of the hair itself. I didn’t find anything like that in the Matchett Bible — just plain old locks of hair. But it was enough to pique my interest, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about what I found out.
The archivist in me wants to finish up with a preservation/storage note, since that’s how this whole post came about in the first place. Now, as I don’t deal with hair very often, I don’t feel confident in trying to advise you on the “best” way to keep and preserve any locks of hair you might have lying around. Perhaps some of my museum friends can help me out on that one. But I am going to go out on a limb here and say that putting unidentified locks of hair into the family Bible is probably not the best thing to do. (Oh, and if you do, it may frighten some future family member or archivist. Ahem.)
Museum peeps, your suggestions are welcome here: But I am inclined to suggest putting the locks into individual enclosures of some type and please, for the love of god, LABEL THEM as to whose hair it is (and maybe even a date and how/why you have it – did they die? go to war? baby’s first haircut? what?). I’m a big fan of labeling things. Can you tell?
The Bible (and hair locks and other mementoes!) discussed here can be found at the Dayton Metro Library, Main Library, Local History Room, 215 E. Third St., Dayton, OH 45402. For more information on the collection, contact the library, or feel free to leave a comment on this blog.