Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America

Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America

Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America

Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America

Synopsis

In the largely forgotten craft of hairwork, practiced widely in nineteenth-century America, the hair of loved ones--living and deceased--was woven into jewelry, wall decorations, and keepsakes. Rings, bracelets, lockets, and brooches were set with metalwork or ivory and painted with rich patterns. Pocket watches hung from long, woven hair fobs. Parlor walls were decorated with elaborate wreaths made of hair fashioned into twigs and flowers, often adorned with beads or ribbons. More unusual items even included a tea set made entirely out of hair. Victorian men and women treasured hairwork not only as remembrances of loved ones and memorials of relationships but also as objects of beauty and means of personal expression.

Beginning as a trade of highly skilled craftsmen in the late eighteenth century, hairwork became tremendously popular among the middle class, and supported at its peak in the mid-nineteenth century an industry that included catalog dealers of premade pieces, standardized patterns, and how-to books for hobbyists. Advertisements, stories, and illustrations in popular publications depicted hairwork as the height of sentimental fashion.

Using a wide array of evidence drawn from poetry, fiction, diaries, letters, and, above all, examples of hairwork, Love Entwined traces the widespread and long-lived popularity of the craft and its place in the American marketplace. During a period that saw a growing mechanization of production methods, hairwork stood apart not only for being made by hand but also for using a part of the body as a material. Helen Sheumaker argues that this refiguration of a loved one's hair into a commodity created a unique meeting point between sentimentality and consumerism, intensifying the close relationship between the goods one purchased and the kind of person one wished to be.

Excerpt

When I was sixteen I drove the family car to the Crossroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, to visit the antiques show being held there. I bought several old postcards, because they were cheap. I happily rifled through boxes of odds and ends, and remember bringing home an ornate brass doorknob, which at the time must have seemed a practical purchase for a teenager living in her parents’ 1960s split-level ranch house. I also went through a shoe box of small, tattered objects at one stand. I came upon a button—a lightweight metal button fronted with some sort of woven brownish fabric. I held it carefully, trying to look experienced at evaluating antiques. “Is this hair?” I asked the vendor. “Nah,” he muttered, “It’s just dirty.” I bought the button for twenty-five cents. At home I determined that it must be hair. I shivered with adolescent morbidity, voyeuristic and yet empathetic. Someone’s hair had been woven and placed in this button frame; it must have been a woman; it must have adorned a dress; it must have been cut off the dress—when she died? When the dress was too frayed to wear? and then she died, and someone saved it; then they died, and someone who didn’t know its story tossed it into the box of odds and ends. I shivered again, put the button in a small box, and forgot about it for years.

Revulsion, squeamishness, curiosity, and sometimes, a sentimental cooing: these have been the principal responses to hairwork that I have encountered in the years I have researched its history. Our own reactions raise the question: What has changed about American society that what was once acceptable is now unnerving and discomfiting? the answer to this question resides in the complex history of consumerism and its aspects.

This book’s title, Love Entwined, comes from a young woman’s entry in her friend’s album. When she attached a loop of her own hair to the page, Elisabeth Shrontz wrote to her friend Emma Miller,

Dear friend accept these lines
E’e[r] traced in friendship’s hand

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