When we heard about Victorian hair wreaths collection at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum we were incredulous, but knew we had to see them. Bizarre memento mori? Objects of exquisite revulsion? Seeing them, however, led to an even greater degree of disbelief and even fewer words.

David Ryan, Registrar at the Pioneers Museum, explains this macabre craft of the 1800s and walks us through the slideshow:

The hair wreath tradition basically runs from about 1850 through roughly about 1880. It was one of a group of crafts known as “fancy work” that women (typically middle-class to upper-class women) did. Some of the other forms of fancy work were similar constructions to the hair wreaths except made out of yarn or sometimes shells and sea ferns, occasionally wax. Usually hair wreaths are in the form of a horseshoe. This was basically along the same lines as nailing a horseshoe above your door to keep the luck in. Otherwise, if you turned it upside down, the luck would “run out.” We’ve been told that new additions to the hair wreaths actually happen right at the bottom of the horseshoe of the horseshoe and others move along the sides towards the top. Most times the hair was from family members. Occasionally there would be a wreath made by a church or some other kind of community. And you can see that there are a variety of different colors of hair because these family members were of various ages. Some of them were memorial wreaths. They were added when somebody died and they would collect the hair from this family member.

If you look at the construction it’s basically a kind of a wire armature that’s in the shape of a horseshoe, and there are different flowers or constructions attached to this wire armature. That made it possible to take them apart and move those pieces up the wreath as they wanted to add to it.

Somebody of a modern sensibility might be kind of creeped out by these things, but back in Victorian times they considered hair as something that should be saved. In fact, every proper Victorian lady had on her dressing table a container called a hair receiver. And every time she’d brush her hair and clean out the brush she’d put the hair into the hair receiver to save it for crafts like this.

We’ve had some speculation from a scholar that some of these were made by people who did nothing but create hair wreaths. And, as far as we know, there was no such profession. These were made by women in their own homes and not for commercial purposes.

(We always love your feedback in the comments below. We also love it when you forward our emails and these posts to your friends and ask them to sign up for our daily email. It helps us a lot. Truly! If you have any ideas for Big Somethings, please email us at thebigsomething@krcc.org. Cheers.)

 

12 Responses to Hair Wreaths. Yes, Hair Wreaths.

  1. Carol says:

    These are beautiful pieces! I love the mourning broochs that also incorporate photographs of the deceased. Check out Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri if you are in the area! Great Big Something!

  2. My grandmother had a wonderful framed hair wreath and all of us grandchildren were fascinated by the beauty as well as the subject matter!

  3. JJM says:

    I thought at first they were “wreaths for hair,” ala pagan headwear. Boy was I wrong.

  4. Nancy Wilsted says:

    And could we common folk view said wreaths, or must one be a big something?

  5. Heather says:

    Simply amazing. I didn’t know anything like this existed…especially 2 miles from my house. Thanks Noel.

  6. Mike Procell says:

    Much nicer than the “hair wraiths” that seem to plague me nightly now – ‘hair yesterday’- gone today…

  7. If one gets tired of looking at these can they be used to flavor a soup?

  8. Marina Eckler says:

    just remembered where i’ve seen this craft before:

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v124/Starlings/omnivore/med02.gif

  9. Marina Eckler says:

    bjork’s medulla record, back cover

  10. [...] to announce that, by popular demand, two of the Victorian “fancy craft” hair wreaths we featured here on The Big Something last week have been placed on display beginning today, Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at the Colorado Springs [...]

  11. Karen says:

    We have a lovely, however far more simple piece to share with you at McAllister House Museum and even a hair receiver on a dresser! Support your local history museums!

  12. [...] about The Big Something has been the opportunity to open windows onto our local history through audio slideshows with expert narration by staff members of the museum. In light of the budget cuts, we thought [...]

News

July 31, 2014 | NPR · An isolation unit at Emory University’s hospital will be used to treat a patient infected with Ebola, the virus that has killed more than 700 people in a recent outbreak in West Africa.
 

AFP/Getty Images
July 31, 2014 | NPR · About 58 percent of California is currently in the worst of the four drought levels used by experts, in conditions normally seen only once every 50-100 years.
 

AP
July 31, 2014 | NPR · The truce is set to begin at 8 a.m. local time Friday. Envoys will also travel to Cairo to negotiate a possible longer peace deal.
 

Arts & Life

Well Go USA
July 31, 2014 | NPR · The very prolific James Franco directs a Cormac McCarthy adaptation that struggles to overcome a repulsive main character with whom it’s almost impossible to empathize.
 

IFC Films
July 31, 2014 | NPR · The drama War Story is trying to wrap itself around both a personal story of a traumatized journalist and some larger social issues. Despite a strong central performance, it succeeds only partially.
 

Courtesy of Sundance
July 31, 2014 | NPR · The eight-part drama that begins Thursday stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a British baroness with an Israeli passport. She’s a fearless actor in a show full of kidnappings, seductions and betrayals.
 

Music

July 31, 2014 | NPR · Harvest Records used to be known for having a strong link to the progressive rock sound of 1970s London. After laying dormant for years, the label is back, and looking for a new identity.
 

Courtesy of Jerry Graham Publicity
July 31, 2014 | NPR · The New York rapper on the music industry — from sitting on the shelf, to refusing deals, posthumous releases to sales expectations — music journalism and taking risks, personal and professional.
 

July 31, 2014 | WPLN · Sometimes the kids you hear on records for kids aren’t really kids. In fact, there’s a crew of adult singers in Nashville that specializes in sounding young — very young.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab