Hair in a book

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:

Hair from the Matchett Bible
Hair from the Matchett Bible

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.

12 responses to “Hair in a book

  1. Hi, my Fiance and I bought an old antique bible about 130 or 150 years(can’t recall) old also, and we haven’t really had the chance to look through it very much. We did find some pictures at the time of purchase(auction) very old, maybe pictures of family or who the bible belonged to. Just a couple days ago, we were looking through it again and came upon a lock of hair also. It kinda freaked me out as well! Its also a strawberry blond color, as we were searching some more, we found some kind of flower with these tiny branches( like the ones you get with carnations) it actually kind of looked like a carnation, but the stem had been wrapped in some kind of material and you can tell that it had been placed in there while fresh because there is some spots of mold from the moisture of the flower. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of flower it is! Anyway its so interesting, I thought I’d share that!

    • Hi, thanks for sharing! Yes, it’s odd the things people put in books sometimes!

    • It sounds like the red flower may have been a corsage. Men often wore them on their lapels back then, I believe.

      It could have also been a “Mother’s Day” corsage. When I was a girl growing up in the South (South Carolina), each Mother’s Day the women at the Southern Baptist Church I attended would wear either a white or a red flower. Carnations and roses were popular.

      And this post…thank you for it. My father committed suicide just before I graduated college and one of the first things I did when I went back home was to pull the hair out of the hairbrush that he used. I still have it in a metal tin that I purchased at an antique store.

      Here are a few interesting links I’ve ran across in my journey to try to understand why I would do such a thing! I hope you don’t mind if I share them on your page:

      http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Hair
      http://www.betemunah.org/hair.html

      Lots more to learn on my journey of self discovery.

  2. Pingback: From the Vault: Hair Apparent | Rochester Local History and Genealogy

  3. My mother had just passed away on Palm Sunday, my mom went very peacefully. Some of her treasures was an old purse from my mom mom who passed in 1987, she was 87. My mom mom was born and raised in Scotland and they have a lot of different traditions. One of which was a long lock of hair, a good portion, which over the years I thought was pretty crazy, until my mom held onto it like a million dollars. After placing the purse into my moms memory box, I immediately ran to my moms hairbrush and pulled every strand out and put into the same purse, and yep you guessed it, I cut my bangs and put it into the same box, so now after reading your blog, it makes perfect sense. Thee are now three generations of hair in the purse. It gives me a sense of comfort at this most troubling time. I have been searching for a meaning and now I found it. Thank you. Now I have to explain all this to my sons.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Michele! I’m glad I could help🙂 Somewhere or other, my mother has a whole ponytail of her hair from when she finally cut it short around age 30. I had forgotten about it until you told me this story. I’ll have to ask her next time I see her and make sure we’re keeping it stored (and identified) properly! I think that was the most frustrating thing about finding all those locks of hair— obviously they were important and precious to someone, but I had no idea who, or whose they were.

  4. Hello! I stumbled across your post while searching for ways to preserve a lock of my son’s hair. I’m a librarian/archivist, so I am aware of the various sources for archival-quality storage. I’m curious; what kind of enclosures did you use? Were the locks stored with the intention of keeping them accessible for viewing or even touching? I could close my son’s hair away in an opaque envelope, but I’m trying to find more visible or tangible ways to store it. We have been keeping a manuscript baby book for him, and a method of enclosure that could be slipped between or adhered to the pages would be ideal. I’m collecting ideas. Thanks! – Anne

    • Thanks for your comment! Since this was over 3 years ago, I am a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe I may have placed the locks between the folds of a piece of Permalife paper and left them in place. This was probably not the best for either the hair or the book, but as I did not know more about the situation, I was reluctant to remove them and destroy any context that may have existed with their placement within the pages. (I doubt seriously that this was the case — that there was any kind of specificity as to the particular pages within which the locks were placed, but you never know.) I am not an expert on this kind of thing; you might contact a museum and see how they handle hair – mourning jewelry or hair wreaths, for instance. But my inclination if you want something that is transparent, rather than an archival quality envelope, would be perhaps an archival sleeve of some kind. If you want to encase it almost entirely (i.e. seal it so it can’t accidentally come out), I would recommend poking a few holes in an inconspicuous location with an awl or an X-acto knife so that any moisture present can come and go (like we do with encapsulations- you never want a totally air-tight seal). But again, I caveat that with saying that I’m not an expert on hair preservation, and perhaps any sort of plastic-like enclosure may not be the way to go for reasons I’m unaware of. There are also museum-quality small object boxes that are made of archival plastics and have transparent tops (a window that is), but that wouldn’t lend itself very well to a book format. If you do find out some additional advice on this subject, I’d love to hear what it is.

      • I thank you so much for this article, I purchased an old 1853 Holy bible from a young guy, which he stated that he stumbled across it while cleaning out an old home that was purchased by new owner and needed to be restored. I purchased it and was so excited, and happy that I was holding a piece of history in my hand. I sat in my bed so eager to look through it, and came across my first hair. I continue and it seems like every stack of pages I flipped through there was another and another pieces of hair and different types of roses and other flowers. I finally closed the bible and put it away freaking out. I was so freaked that the next day I was ready to send the hair for testing, thinking that maybe these people were murdered or something… Crazy huh? Hahaha, now I laugh thanks to you and this article, but I wasn’t laughing yesterday when I found them. Again thank you🙂

      • Hi, Maria- I’m glad this post helped you feel better about the locks of hair you found in that Bible! Yes, they were most likely put there out of love, and the person who saved them would probably be glad to know someone still has them🙂

  5. My wife died 3 years ago. She had 4th stage metastatic colon cancer. She lasted 7 1/2 years after her major surgery.
    It took me almost a year to go through her dresser drawers. In the second drawer at the bottom I found a white envelope with my name written on it. It was not sealed, inside was a plastic sandwich bag sealed. Inside was a lock of her hair. A piece of folded paper was with it. She wrote, “With all my love, Charlene”.
    We were married for almost 38 years. the young say, wow that is a long time. I say, not long enough.
    I had no ideal, two years ago why she left her hair for me. Now I have come to understand why…and now I am happy for it.
    Thank you , Gabriel

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