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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.