(Written by Sara Arthurs, staff writer for The Courier. Story originally published on April 20, 2018).
At first, Lindsey Demaree and Milena Vilez thought making art out of human hair seemed gross. Now, they see it as beautiful.
The two University of Findlay students, pursuing master’s degrees in rhetoric and writing, gave a presentation on Victorian hair art earlier this month at the Hancock Historical Museum. They were required to research an artifact in the museum for their class – and they knew what they wanted to do when they came across a wreath at the museum. Curator Joy Bennett nonchalantly told them it was actually a wreath of human hair, “and she just went walking, as you do,” Velez said.
But Velez’ and Demaree’s interest was piqued. The students were fascinated by the wreath, and examined the different designs and shapes in it.
They learned the museum has more hair art in its collections. Demaree said they were taken aback to learn “that there are boxes of hair just hiding in an attic.”
Velez said they started reaching out to donors of the art. In the meantime, Bennett found another wreath of hair. They tracked down the person who had donated this second wreath to the museum after purchasing it for sale – out of interest, not in the art itself, but in the thick walnut frame.
Valez said the last artifact found was “a box of hair daisies,” six flowers made from the hair of two people. A note accompanying the donation stated that the four large daises were the writer’s hair, and the two smaller ones from “Sidney’s.” “It was cut before he was sick,” said the note, signed, “Auntie.”
A sick family member would give a lock of hair to relatives as “a way to keep a physical piece of a loved one,” Demaree said.
Velez said hair art originated in the 12th or 13th century but was made more popular by Queen Victoria. After Prince Albert’s death, she spent 40 years in deep mourning, wearing nothing but black, a locket of his hair around her neck. “Mourning culture” was big in those days, Velez said. If someone died, their body would be kept in the house for days. (in fact, she said, the ritual of bringing flowers to funeral grew out of a trend to bring flowers into the home to mask the smell.) It was also common to prop up the dead body to take a photograph, known as “memento mori.” Photography was expensive, and rare. But to preserve the memory, the deceased person would be posed with the family as if he or she was alive. (Velez does not recommend Googling this late at night.)
Hair art, however wasn’t just made from the sick or dead. Giving hair, perhaps in a locket or watch chain, was as common as giving a bouquet of flowers, Velez said.
Photography was fairly new at this time, and was often seen as just a person’s appearance, not their essence. So someone might send a lock of hair along with a photograph of themselves, to make the correspondence more personal. Demaree said hair art was thought to preserve the self in an authentic way. If she were to give some of her hair, “You know it’s me,” she said.
Velez said hair was also a “renewable resource” and could be given freely to anyone. And, Demaree said, it didn’t decompose, and was easy to collect and preserve. And yes, artists would clean it before weaving the hair into a design.
Demaree said people back then had hair pots, used to collect what fell out as they brushed their hair. The artist could cut off an entire ponytail, or use just a few strands. Even a small piece just a couple of inches long could be used in art, Demaree said.
Demaree said hair art was made by both professionals and amateurs. People could make their own hair art at home, but the upper middle class would also send hair to professionals to be made into art. Some created elaborate scenes, shaping trees, birds and other items out of hair.
A ‘heady’ discovery
Leila Cohoon is owner of Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri. The museum collection, which has drawn visitors from as far as France, includes 750 hair wreaths and about 2,000 pieces of jewelry made from human hair.
Now 86, Cohoon has spent more than six decades learning about the art of human hair. In 1956, then the owner of a beauty salon in Independence, she “went down on the plaza to buy my Easter shoes.” There she saw an arrangement of hair, about 5 inches square, in an antique store window. “I bought that that year instead of my Easter shoes… That’s what started the whole thing,” Cohoon said.
That first piece was made from light-colored hair adorned with black beads, which she later learned signified that hair was from someone who had died. Cohoon started researching, and decided she was going to learn how to make hair art. “I thought I could buy a book” but there weren’t any, she said. So she taught herself.
She has since written her own book, which depicts 36 different hair art techniques. Cohoon can teach 32 of them. She has taught 39 Americans to make hair art, along with one student who came from London to learn. She’s taught her daughter and daughter-in-law to make hair art, adding, “My grandkids, they all know how to do it.”
Cohoon also taught a class in China. Embroidery with hair has been done in China, but the people she taught were unfamiliar with hair wreaths. Hair art comes from all over the world, though, and Cohoon has pieces in her museum from many countries.
Today, hair art can be purchased on eBay. At the time she spoke to The Courier, Cohoon said there were over 25 pieces available for sale on eBay (several of which, she said, were overpriced).
Cohoon’s museum has nine wreaths made from just one person’s hair. The rest are genealogy – meaning each member of a family contributed a length of hair.
“Before the camera was invented,” that’s how you’d document a family, she said.
Cohoon also has a “friendship wreath,” which she suspects came from a community group, possibly a church group. Here, too, each member of the group contributed a length of hair to the project.
“This art form almost died out,” Cohoon said, adding she has just three pieces dated after 1900. She said it’s a myth that it was solely a Victorian art. In fact, it dates back centuries before.
One piece in her museum includes Cohoon’s own hair. She embellished a pin that was in her possession, adding her own hair to it.
She is now working on her second book, featuring antique pictures of people wearing jewelry made from hair. She has two more books planned, including one that will depict children who are making hair wreaths. Many years ago, 9-year-old children would make hair art, she said. (“They didn’t play Pokemon in those days,” Cohoon said). And, she said, in Sweden today, sixth-graders are taught how to make hair art. Cohoon’s fourth book will show photographs of hair wreaths from her museum, examining genealogy through hair art.
Along with art and history, she has learned science, like how diet affects your hair, and what happens to make hair turn gray with age. She said she’s still as interested as the day she started learning about hair art. And no, she said, she never gets the comment that hair art is gross.
“It’s what they did before the camera was invented,” and what’s gross about that?, she said.
Velez said hair art was created “for love and out of love,” adding the more she learns about it, the more “I no longer see it as repulsive or gross.”
Velez has a friend who saved hair for a bracelet from a horse that had to be put down, and she herself has thought of making art from her own daughter’s hair.
Demaree asked if there were any moms in the audience who kept a lock of their baby’s hair at the first haircut. Did you do anything with it? No? Velez asked. “We have some ideas for you.”
A hair wreath is on display at the Hancock Historical Museum. The other wreath, and smaller pieces like hair daisies, are in the collections but are not on display. If you’re looking to make a hair art tour of northwestern Ohio, pieces can also be found at museum’s in Wyandot, Hardin and Allen counties.