When coming across these beautifully detailed designs I marvelled at them for the attractiveness of the drawing alone, but on closer inspection found they had an even more interesting story to tell. They show designs for Victorian mourning jewellery made using real hair. Hair as always been a symbol of life in many cultures, and can be traced right back to Egyptian tomb paintings showing pharaohs and queens exchanging hair balls as tokens of enduring love.
This jewellery marked the lives and times of the people who wore it. It was a token to remember a loved one, a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death. During the Victorian era it was often used as a status symbol, elaborate jewellery made from precious materials showed the wealth of the lost loved one.
After the death of Prince Albert in December 1861 it reached it most popular, and many people were making and wearing different variations. Queen Victoria went into deep mourning for Albert, which was imitated by her subjects when faced with their own bereavements.
By in the 1850's hairwork became a popular pastime, and patterns for making brooches, cuff links, and bracelets were widely available. Preparation was important. The hair must be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes to clean and make it more pliable. It was then sorted into it various lengths and divided into usable strands. Sometimes horse hair was used because it was coarser than human hair, and so was easier for beginners. Moulds were almost always used to create these precise designs, and on certain occasions wealthier families has local craftsmen make specific moulds for them.
Hair art developed to be used not only for mourning jewellery, but in artwork and other crafts. Beautifully detailed landscape pictures and floral designs became popular, and jewellery began using the technique in commercial pieces. The elaborate work produced showed an incredibly high level of skill. Hair became an expensive commodity, and merchants often offered young girls ribbons, combs and trinkets in exchange for their hair.
Godey's Lady's Book endorsed the fashion of hair jewelry and made it easy to
acquire. The following excerpt extolling the virtues of hairwork is from c. 1850:
"Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like
love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a
lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven
and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee
here, not unworthy of thy being now."
By the end of the 20th century the popularity of hair art has faded, though thousands of amazing pieces still survive in our museums and antique shops.