From the Vault: Hair Apparent

How many of you have keepsakes of friends and loved ones stashed away for posterity? Perhaps they’re photographs, whether organized in an album or jumbled together in a box at the bottom of a closet. Maybe you’ve kept old yearbooks that contain the handwritten wishes of dear friends, teachers, and acquaintances alike. Or you may have analog or digital video footage of the important people in your life.

During the course of my work with the Local History & Genealogy Division’s 500+ cubic feet of manuscripts and special collections, I’ve come across many treasures. To me, though, the most intriguing item is a clothbound volume of…hair.

Yes, hair.

But not just any hair. These tendrils have been lovingly woven into intricately braided and sometimes looped whorls. Impressive though it is, there was a definite “ick” factor the first time I examined the small green album. After all, it was somebody’s hair.

It makes sense, though, if you think about it. Hair is forever. Before the advent of photography, and at a time when correspondence was slow and often unreliable, hair belonging to loved ones both living and dead functioned as a remembrance, a piece of that person that one could not only see, but touch. In her book Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, Helen Sheumaker observes, “Hair albums…were often family albums that served as a tactile map of kin relationships. Usually with little narration and sometimes with no identification of the hair locks by names, there are, however, telling patterns of arrangement of family members in the album” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 121).

The art of hairwork proliferated in America during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly taking the form of hair jewelry, hair wreaths, and other unique creations designed to evoke memories of friends and loved ones. “Hair, severed from the body but still always of that body, acted as a physical marker not only of an individual but of the memories and thoughts of that individual” (Sheumaker, 27). Patterns for various hair creations appeared in publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book. People who weren’t artistically inclined could send snippets of hair to companies or local artisans skilled in making hairwork keepsakes.

Advertisement for a business offering hairwork services. From the 1857 Rochester City Directory.

Advertisement for a business offering hairwork services. From the 1857 Rochester City Directory.

This particular hair album, which dates to 1839, belonged to Ann Almira Babcock (b. 1813, d. 1895). Although its provenance is unknown, it’s likely that the album was passed down through the family to Ann’s granddaughter, Anah Babcock Yates (b. 1869, d. 1932), whose own papers were donated to the Rochester Public Library.

Whether or not Ann worked the hair in the album herself or had it done professionally remains a mystery. What we do know, however, is that 174 years later, a piece of her family’s history lives on in a little green book in the Local History & Genealogy Division.

—Cheri Crist, Librarian

Excerpts from Ann A. Babcock’s
Hair Album

Ann A. Babcock's hair album.

Ann A. Babcock’s hair album.

The first page of Ann's "memento book."

The first page of Ann’s “memento book.”

The placement of the hair locks resembles a family tree, with Ann's father and mother at the top and her siblings below. Note the "ghost" images--remnants from the oils in the hair--on the opposite page.

The placement of the hair locks resembles a family tree, with Ann’s father and mother at the top and her siblings below. Note the “ghost” images–remnants from the oils in the hair–on the opposite page.

At top right is Ann's hair; to the left is hair belonging to her husband Albert Franklin. Their children's hair is below.

At top right is Ann’s hair; to the left is hair belonging to her husband, Albert Franklin. Their children’s hair is below.

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Hair belonging to “Miss Helen Wilber.” The size of the arrangement suggests that Ann and Miss Wilber had a close relationship.

The album contains several pages of "raw" hair that Ann apparently never got to.

The album contains several pages of “raw” hair that Ann apparently never got to.

"The last of Frank Allman."

“The last of Frank Allman.”

Resources

Cultural Compass Blog; “Locks of Ages: The Leigh Hunt Hair Collection,” blog entry by Richard Oram.
http://www.utexas.edu/opa/blogs/culturalcompass/2011/01/13/locks-of-ages-the-leigh-hunt-hair-collection/

Glancing Backwards Blog; “Hair in a Book,” blog entry by Lisa P. Rickey.
http://lisarickey.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/hair-in-a-book/

“Hair Wreaths: Fancywork from the Victorian Era.” Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.
http://textilecollection.wisc.edu/featured_textile_articles/hair_wreath.html

“Hairwork Albums.” The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork.
http://www.victoriangothic.org/the-lost-art-of-sentimental-hairwork/

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love this…..

  2. I love this, too— this is so cool! Thanks for sharing all the picture. The hair book that I found was just…loose locks of hair, not even identified. It makes me sad knowing that someone cared enough to keep those locks, but they didn’t label them in any way, so I have no idea now whose hair it is other than to assume they are probably from family members of the book’s owners. (It’s a family Bible with some genealogy notes in it, so at least that narrows it down a tiny bit.) Thanks for sharing the research & photos! I’m going to check out that “Love Entwined” book on inter-library loan.

  3. Hi Lisa — thanks! Have you thought about blogging about it? I wonder if something happened to the creator of the book before she could do anything with the locks of hair. Sounds like a good candidate for some detective work!

  4. What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable knowledge on the topic of unpredicted feelings.


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