From Servants to Sovereigns, Lousy Hair Days (Part I)

When Mr. Gilchrist [the hairdresser] opened my aunt’s head, …its effluvias [bad odor] affected my sense of smelling disagreeably, which stench however, did not surprise me when I observed the great variety of materials employed in raising the dirty fabric. False locks to supply the great deficiency of native hair, pomatum with profusion, greasy wool to bolster up the adopted locks, and gray powder to conceal at once age and dirt, and all these caulked together by pins of an indecent length and corresponding color.  When the comb was applied to the natural hair, I observed swarms of animalculas [small insects] running about in the utmost consternation and in different directions, upon which I …asked …[Mr. Gilchrist] whether that numerous swarm did not from time to time send out colonies to other parts of the body?  He assured me that they could not; for that the quantity of powder and pomatum formed a glutinous matter which… caught and clogged [them]… and prevented their migration.  Here I observed my aunt to be in a good deal of confusion, and she told me that she would not detain me any longer from better company; for …the operations of the toilette were not a very agreeable spectacle to bystanders, but that they were an unavoidable evil; for, after all, if one did not dress a little like other people, one should be pointed at as one went along.

-August, 1768 London Magazine. Quoted in Corson Fashions in Hair: The First five Thousand Years, pp. 337-338.

You’ve probably heard of – or even used – the term “lousy” to refer to an unpleasant situation, but were you aware that it refers to the state of being infested with lice? “Louse” is the singular form of the plural “lice.” The continued popularity of terms such as “lousy” and “nitpicking” reflects the enduring legacy we’ve inherited from a long history of human lice infestations.

Louse

A louse as depicted in Hooke’s Micrographia. Credit: National Library of Wales. Public Domain.

Lice feast upon the blood from their reluctant hosts, and their rapacious bites make the scalp itch incessantly. During the colonial era, desperate hosts combated these voracious pests by cutting their hair short or shaving it off altogether!

In the 1700s, the most popular hair styles for adults combined greasy pomade with by a liberal (and frequent) application of hair powder (often wheat flour-based). The resulting impenetrable pasty blend of lard and starch provided an irresistible condiment for pests of all kinds. Hair thus embellished demanded careful maintenance. The frequency of hair care depended upon individual preference, availability of a trusted hairdresser, the presence of pests, and how the hairstyle’s veneer of pomade-and-powder responded to the weather (hot weather and rain, for example, prove devastating).

Combating pests was so stressful that many found wearing a wig (or ‘peruke’) less troublesome than maintaining one’s own hair. Wigs can be removed, cleaned, boiled, combed, and have requisite unguents applied by a hairdresser without the wearers being involved. A cleaned and dressed peruke was presented to its owner without the time and discomfort associated with having these procedures applied directly to his scalp.

Until the later decades of the 1700s, wearing wigs was essential for most fine gentlemen. Women might wear wigs if some illness caused the loss or thinning of their own hair, but wearing them as fashion accessories was frowned upon for ladies during the 17th and much of the 18th centuries. Well-heeled ladies grew their own hair long and – especially in the final decades of the 1700s – piled it ever higher upon the top of their head. Architecture was even influenced by the tall styles of both men and women, as doorways became higher or arched to accommodate soaring headdresses.

Whether part of a wig or confined to one’s own locks, prolific hair was fashionable and wool pads increased their towering heights dramatically. Purchasing separate lengths of curled hair to augment feminine hairstyles was especially popular among refined ladies. Thomas Jefferson purchased such curls for an esteemed female family member from a Williamsburg wig shop in 1770.

Laborers, however, required practical hair styles that could withstand the strenuous environmental conditions and exertions of their physical tasks. The 18th century hairstyles of dedicated workers reflected the minimal time they possessed to style and maintain their hairstyles. These people wore their own hair in easy-to-maintain styles: under most circumstances they simply couldn’t afford the time, products, or talented hairdressers required of fancy hairstyles.

The greasy pomade-and-powder enhanced styles of refined men and ladies attracted dust in addition to insects. Scalps were tickled by crawling insects, plagued by biting lice, and irritated by an accumulation of products: they itched! Men could reach under their wig for a quick scratch or, if alone, could remove their wig for a well-earned scrape. For those men and women who wore their own pomaded hair, a clumsy, direct manual scratching by hand disturbed their inflexible tresses. Head scratchers (or grattoirs), such as the one shown below, allowed people to itch their scalp while minimizing the damage done to their elaborate styles, stiffened as they are by layers of pomade and powder. The hairpins that festoon elaborate hairstyles also provided a means of relief: discretely shifting those hairpins back and forth across one’s scalp strategically satisfies itchy crowns. Of course, the lard-infused pomade attracted not only pore-clogging dust, but additional insatiable insects and even rodents.

ScratcherWithInset

This head scratcher, or ‘grattoir,’ allowed its owner to scratch their scalp without disturbing their stiff, pomade-and-powder-encrusted hairstyle. It features a wooden handle and an ivory hand (inset), a popular motif in these essential tools.

Bugs were such a fact of life that etiquette about the manner in which to deal with these pests while under the scrutiny of company was carefully considered. ‘Pest protocols’ were included in The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a conduct manual written in the late 16th century that young George Washington copied word-for-word as part of his gentlemanly education during his time at Ferry Farm. There were 110 rules, and Washington carefully numbered each one. Dealing with those ever present vermin infesting bodies was number 13 on his edition:

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks etc. in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the clothes or companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

From servants to sovereigns, blood-sucking head lice were a nuisance for all. Speaking of itchy crowns, King George III encountered a louse on his dinner plate! He blamed the kitchen staff for this uninvited dinner guest.

Is this Your Louse

“Is this Your Louse?” King George III queries a member of the kitchen staff after discovering a louse on his dinner plate. Thomas Rowlandson, 1787. Lewis Walpole Library.

The eggs of these pests, called nits, are really small. Nitpicking is tiresome. Fine-toothed combs, just like those found at Ferry Farm (see photo), enjoy millennia-long application in the battle against these parasites worldwide.  But, some cautioned that combing hair caused headaches if done too frequently! Combing once every week or two was ideal. Between fear of water, ineffective soaps, and an aversion to combing, hairstyles might go weeks or even months without being combed.

FF-Combs

These bone grooming comb fragments are from Ferry Farm. Their delicate teeth are missing because they have broken off and decayed over time.

Keeping hair short, or shaving it altogether, was an effective deterrent against these pests.  Unlike one’s own hair, wigs could be boiled and baked to ensure lice and their eggs (‘nits’) are destroyed.  However, without proper maintenance, wig hair could host just as many pests as natural hair. In 1664, Samuel Pepys was dismayed to discover that the brand new peruke he purchased was infested with nits and lice.

Hairstyle historian Maria Jedding-Gesterling claims that some desperate hirsute fashionistas tucked insect traps within their towering coiffures. Fabrics soaked in blood or honey lured hungry fleas into these pierced ivory traps. And for those people who had surrendered in the war against insects, wearing clothing that was flea colored provided a savvy strategy for hiding those intimate, tiny bedfellows. Flea-colored clothing became popular in the mid-1770s, even among the Court at Versailles.

Is your head itching? Mine is!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

For young scholars/general interest:

Fisher, Leonard Everett. 2000 [1965]. The Wigmakers. Benchmark Books, New York.

Galke, Laura. 2015. Wigs, 1715-1785. In Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, Volume 1, Pre-Colonial Times through the American Revolution, edited by Jose Blanco F., and Mary D. Doering, pp. 301-303. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.

Huey, Lois Miner. 2014. Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History. Millbrook Press, Minneapolis.

Hunt-Hurst, Patricia. Wigs, 1776-1819. In Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, Volume 2, The Federal Era through the 19th Century, edited by Jose Blanco F., and Patricia Hunt-Hurst, pp. 267-268. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.

Trasko, Mary.  1994.  Daring Do’s:  A History of Extraordinary Hair.  Flammarion, Paris.

Vincent, Susan J. 2009. The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today. Berg, New York.

 

For mature researchers:

Arnold, Janet.  1970.  Perukes and Periwigs.  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.

Bristol, Douglas Walter, Jr. Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Brown, Kathleen M. 2009. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Corson, Richard.  2012 [1965].  Fashions in Hair:  The First Five Thousand Years.  Peter Owen, London.

Cox, J. Stevens.  1965.  The Wigmaker’s Art in the 18th Century.  George S. MacManu Company.  Philadelphia.

Cruse, Jen. 2007. The Comb: Its History and Development. Robert Hale, London.

Durbin, Gail.  1984.  Wig, Hairdressing and Shaving Bygones. Shire Publications, Ltd. Aylesbury, Bucks.

Festa, Lynn.  2005.  Personal Effects:  Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century.  Eighteenth-Century Life.  29(2):47-90.

Galke, Laura. 2018. Tressed for Success: Male Hair Care and Wig Hair Curlers at George Washington’s Childhood Home. Winterthur Portfolio 52(2):1-51.

Jedding-Gesterling, Maria

1988 Regency, Rococo and Louis XVI (1715-1789).  In Hairstyles: A Cultural History of Fashions in Hair from Antiquity up to the Present Day, edited by Maria Jedding-Geserling.   Hans Schwarzkopf, Hamburg.  Pp. 119-148.

Kern, Susan. 2010. The Jeffersons at Shadwell.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Kwass, Michael.  2006.  Big Hair: A Wig history of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France.  The American Historical Review 111(3):631-659.

Moore, William. 1780. The Art of Hair-Dressing and Making it Grow Fast, Together With a Plain and Easy Method of Preserving it; With Several Useful Recipes, Etc.  Printed for the Author by J. Salmon, in Stall-Street, Bath.

Perry, Gill.  2004.  Staging Gender and “Hairy Signs:” Representing Dorothy Jordan’s Curles.  Eighteenth-Century Studies 38(1):145-163.

Pointon, Marcia.  1993.  Hanging the Head:  Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Richardson and Urquhart.  1778.  The New London Toilet: or, a Compleat Collection of the Most Simple and Useful Receipts for Preserving and Improving Beauty.  Printed for Richardson and Urquhart, London.

Sherrow, Victoria.  2006. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

Stewart, James. 1782.  Plocacosmos:  or the Whole Art of Hair Dressing; Wherein is Contained, Ample Rules for the Young Artizan.  Printed for the Author, No. 12, Old Broad-Street, London.

Warwick, Edward, Henry C. Pitz, and Alexander Wyckoff.  1965.  Early American Dress:  The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods.  Bonanza Books, New York.

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How Many Curlers did a Harried Hairdresser Need? Let’s Do the Math!

After unearthing over 200 wig hair curlers from Washington’s Boyhood Home, we were in a position to do something that – to our knowledge – has never been done before: crossmend all those curler fragments. As a result, we can now predict the minimum number of curlers the Washington family’s harried hairdressers needed.

2013_07_04_wigcurler

Plate 1: A wig hair curler fresh from the excavation of the Washingtons’ task yard. Note the “WB” mark on its end, which we believe to be the Initials of its British manufacturer. Image courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University/Bernard Means.

If you remember our blog post from way back in January 2015, these unglazed ceramic curlers were often used by wigmakers to create the curled styles of a wig’s coiffure during the making of a new peruke (Plate 1). We’ve also learned that hair stylists employed curlers to freshen the lagging curls upon an existing wig, after a gentleman had worn it out. How often a wig needed to be re-set depended upon the standards of the gentleman, and the activities and weather that he and his stylish coiffure encountered. Because curlers had to be heated to be effective, they were only used when wigs were safely removed from the gentleman’s head.

Before our crossmending could commence, the curlers had to be washed, cataloged, and labeled. Then, all of the labeled curler fragments could be compared and evaluated for crossmending. Previous analysis revealed that the assemblage included nine different sizes (Plate 2). Most of our curlers are smaller diameter, especially sizes one and two (for shorter hair/narrow width curls). Within each size, width and even length varied: they were not manufactured in a standardized way. This was the eighteenth century, after all.

Ferry Farm All Nine-b-Smaller

Plate 2: Representatives of the nine different curler sizes from Ferry Farm. These nine sizes were analytically imposed. They may not necessarily represent historically defined categories.

FFCurlerMarksShopt.small

Plate 3: There were three varieties of maker’s marks. A few curlers had no marks.

Most curlers had one of three varieties of maker’s marks (Plate 3). However, a handful exhibited no mark at all. It was within these subcategories that the cross mending began. And the results were surprising.

You’ve probably broken a glass or plate. They usually break into many pieces. In contrast, curlers tend to break into two fragments at their weakest point: near the center of the curler (Plate 4). With a single mend you can often get a complete or near complete specimen (Plate 5).

FF18 Curlers h.shopt.small

Plate 4: Curlers tend to break into two fragments.

One of the primary goals of crossmending was to determine whether we had found all of the curlers used here during the mid-1700s, or just a portion of them. If we had found the entire assemblage, for example, our 194 curler fragments should result in 97 crossmended curlers. That is to say, they should all mend to another fragment. An example of a crossmend is shown in Plate 5.

Archaeologists refer to this process of mending fragmented remains of a larger item together as “crossmending.” Whether glass bottles. tablewares, ceramic vessels, or even the bones of animals, this process allows us to determine the minimum number of any given item in the recovered collection. For example, if after crossmending, you have three right hind cow legs and two left hind cow legs you know that were a minimum of three cows on site. This is a dramatic oversimplification, but you get the idea. This educated guess of the least number of specimens present is called the minimum number of individuals, or MNI.

SFR65-3055

Plate 5: A typical curler crossmend from Ferry Farm. Two fragments mend to form a complete specimen. Often, these curlers break in the middle, as shown.

After weeks of dedicated crossmendingby steadfast interns, enthusiastic volunteers, and dedicated Foundation staff, a total of fifteen whole curlers were crossmended from thirty previously disparate fragments. When added to our impressive collection of complete curlers (n=20), a total of 35 complete curlers (20 complete, excavated curlers and an additional 15 formed from 30 mended fragments) make up the Ferry Farm assemblage.

Another exciting result of this exercise was that we now had two complete (mended) size one curlers and a mended size eight curler: previously these two respective sizes were only represented by disjointed fragments. Unfortunately, no mended size nine curlers were discovered. Size nine continues to be represented by fragments, and it is the only size from Ferry Farm for which we have no complete examples.

So what’s the minimum number of curlers that the Washingtons’ hairdresser used to curl their many wigs? Let’s do the math!

There are        164 molded curler fragments with no matches
+  1 hand made curler fragment
+20 whole (unbroken) molded curlers
+15 mended molded curlers (from 30 fragments)
                          (a minimum of) 200 curlers

Another informative aspect of crossmending is seeing from what areas of the site the mended curlers were found (Figure 1). As Figure 1 shows, a clear relationship between the work yard, where the majority of curlers were discovered and the Washington House can be seen. This adds additional evidence to our hypothesis that the majority of curling tasks took place in the eastern work yard and that finishing tasks associated with wigs (powdering, drying the washed, wet wig, and final elegant touches) took place in the parlor. The parlor has emerged as an area of wig hair maintenance, since eight curlers/curler fragments were recovered from the parlor room root cellar.

14SeptCurlerXMendzSmall

Figure 1: This bird’s-eye view of the Washington house and surrounding yard shows where ten of the crossmended fragments mend to their respective mates. A ‘path’ between the work yard – where the majority of curlers were used – and the Parlor inside the house is evident.

While wearing wigs was highly fashionable among refined British colonial gentleman, little is known about how they were maintained, how often they were cleaned and set, and how these crucial activities were performed at the household level. The data recovered from Ferry Farm is providing new information and innovative analysis of this poorly understood, but essential hairdressing routine

All in all, a terrific exercise!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Le Pouf: Sensational Hairstyle of the 18th Century

wig-hair-curlers

Wig curlers excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty interested in 18th century hairstyles, wigs, and wig-styling here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  As evidence, check out our most viewed blog post. It’s about wig styling.  Our interest stems from the hundreds of wig curlers archaeologists have excavated during digs at Ferry Farm.  While those wig curlers were used to style men’s wigs here in British North America, our research explorations into hairstyling of the 1700s sometimes range more widely.  The information we find may have no direct relevance to George Washington and his family here in Fredericksburg but it still helps us to understand the world in which they lived.  Sometimes the information is simply too fascinating not to share here on Lives & Legacies and it’s all thanks to those little wig curlers that keep popping out of the ground where George Washington’s boyhood home once stood.

One of the most sensational wig and hair styles of the 18th century – the pouf – was found among the women courtiers of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in France across the Atlantic from Ferry Farm.  The pouf was a hairstyle that became popular in the French court during the late part of the eighteenth century.  The pouf utilized everything from wire, cloth, gauze, wigs, animal hair, and the wearer’s own hair to create a voluminous coiffure that could be used as a canvas to express feelings (pouf à la sentiment) or commemorate events (pouf à la circonstance).[1]

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

The pouf’s creation has been attributed to two people: Madame Rose Bertin and hairdresser Monsieur Léonard. [2]  Bertin had a shop in Paris, close to the Palace, where she and Léonard began offering these unique headdresses to the wealthy noble women of the court including Marie Antoinette.

One of the first women of court to commission such a headdress was the Duchess of Chartres in April 1774.  The Duchess wanted to commemorate the birth of her son so she had Léonard create a unique coiffure.  It featured “fourteen yards of gauze and numerous plumes waving at the top of a tower…two waxen figures as ornaments, representing her son in his nurse’s arms.  Beside was placed a parrot pecking at a plate of cherries, and reclining at the nurse’s feet, a waxen figure of a little African boy of whom the duchess was very fond.  On different parts of the hairpieces were the initials of Duke of Chartres, of Penthievre, and of Orleans, formed with the hair of those princes – the husband, father, and father-in-law of the duchess.”[3]  The poufs popularity took off after the Duchess premiered this flamboyant bouffant and it became a must have fashion accessory for all aristocratic and wealthy ladies of France.

The Duchess of Lauzun hired Bertin to decorate her locks as bemused contemporary journalists reported with– “a stormy sea, a hunter shooting at ducks, a mill where a female mill worker was being seduced by a priest, and at the bottom, the mill-worker’s husband walking along with his donkey.” [4]

Young Marie Antoinette, France’s new queen, became the leader of all things fashionable in pouf décor.  One of her most written about headpieces was the “coiffure à l’Iphigénie” which was wound with black mourning ribbons, trimmed with a black veil, adorned with a wreath of black flowers and topped with a crescent moon.  She wore this on a night at the opera to support a friend Christoph Gluck and his Parisian debut of “Iphigénie en Aulide.”[5]

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Ever at the cutting edge not only in fashion but in medicine, she unveiled “pouf à la inoculation” to celebrate her husband’s recent small pox vaccinationThis pouf included a serpent belonging to the Greek’s god of medicine, Aesculapius, twined around an olive tree that symbolized wisdom with a great golden sun rising behind it as a nod to her husband’s grandfather Louis XIV, the much-loved Sun King.

Two other noted examples that caused a stir in the court were the Zephyr and the Coiffure a la Belle-Poule.  The Zephyr, created by Monsieur Léonard, was a moving garden of brightly colored flowers which was celebrated as a peak achievement for the hairdresser.  The Coiffure a la Belle-Poule was a nautical pouf that consisted of a ship sailing on a sea of thick wavy hair.  It was invented after the naval battle in which the frigate La Belle Poule was victorious.

A realistic view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

A fairly realistic view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

Soon these new hairdos began to make their way out of the circles of aristocracy to the streets of Paris.  However, as cutting-edge fashion makes its way out into the streets, the distinctiveness is somewhat diluted creating more audacious and ostentatious copycats.  This was quickly picked up on by social critics and became a fertile subject for mockery and satire.

One critic lampooned the imitators saying, “they did not hesitate to embrace styles more ridiculous than sublime.  Thus spotting in the Queen’s pouf a la jardinière such implausible ingredients as an artichoke, a carrot, some radishes, and a head of cabbage.” [6] Another complained, “Frivolous women covered their heads with butterflies” and “Melancholic women went so far as to put crematory urns in their headdress.”  Even the hair dresser who invented the pouf began to decry the “prodigious folly of composite and fabricated coiffures, as pictures of towns, little models of Paris, a globe or the heavens.”

A satirical view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

A satirical view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

Some complaints seemed more valid than others.  Spectators at the Paris Opera petitioned the director, to refuse any lady whose coiffure blocked the view of the rest of the audience.    While enjoying the theatre might inconvenience others, getting to the theatre brought its own set of physical dilemmas for the pouf wearer.  Try squeezing a three foot bouffant into a small covered carriage or navigating a standard doorway with the additional height.

Luckily, for those who found the pouf a public nuisance, a silly fashion fad, or just a physical pain to wear did not have to wait long for it to fall out of favor spectacularly.  The huge grandiose styles began to represent a symbol of aristocratic excess in a society on the verge of political revolution.  It embodied the nobility’s unbridled lavishness in the face of public discontent.  This willful ignorance didn’t end well for the coiffured-court ladies who soon found they no longer had anywhere to put their elaborate headdresses.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, New York: Picador, 2006: 104.

[2] Weber, 104.

[3] Weber, 105; Olivier Bernier, The Eighteenth Century Woman, New York: Doubleday, 1982: 235; Will Bashor, Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution, Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2013: 65

[4] Weber, 105.

[5] Weber, 106; Bashor, 66.

[6] Weber, 111.

In Jewelry Remembered: Fashion as a Mourning Ritual

Collections managers deal with a wide array of objects. Sometimes those objects can be quite odd and even a bit gross to the modern person.  One object that has always fascinated me is mourning jewelry and the hair of the deceased that jewelry contains.  Not many people nowadays think of collecting loved ones hair to keep in a locket or to weave into bracelets, but this was a widespread practice and even quite fashionable a relatively short time ago.  While perhaps odd to us today, mourning jewelry gives us a glimpse into rituals surrounding the dead and grieving at a time when death was a more prominent and ubiquitous part of life.

The evolution of mourning jewelry began around the Middle Ages as part of the growth of Christian ideas on mortality and redemption called Memento Mori. These ideas found their way into literature, art, and even fashion.  Memento Mori jewelry reminded the wearer of their own mortality. These pieces, usually rings, incorporated macabre imagery like skulls, skeletons and coffins to create strong visual reminders of the transient nature of earthly life.

It was not until the 17th century that the Memento Mori jewelry developed into what we know as mourning or memorial jewelry.  The imagery remained similar but the symbolism became more personal and served as a sentimental remembrance of a specific individual, instead of one’s own mortality.  Engraved names, dates of death and age of the deceased appeared on pieces.  Bereaved family presented these ornaments to friends and family as memorial to the individual.  They became a status symbol and many wealthy people actually included instructions of how the jewelry would be designed, and made in their will. For example, George Washington declared in his will: “To my Sisters in law Hannah Washington & Mildred Washington; to my friends Eleanor Stuart, Hannah Washington of Fairfield, and Elizabeth Washington of Hayfield, I give, each, a mourning Ring of the value of one hundred dollars. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value of them, but as mementos of my esteem & regard.”

GW Brooch 1

The oval-shaped brooch above bears the 1798 Saint Memin likeness of George Washington in profile and dates from around 1799. The image is surrounded by gold and blue enamel and is under convex glass.  The brooch is trimmed by forty-four seed pearls.

GW Brooch 3

The back of the brooch contains a plait of brownish-red hair under glass along with a pin fastening.  Tradition says the hair is General Washington’s cut after his death and sent from Mount Vernon by Martha to Mrs. R.B. Lee of the Sully Plantation, Fairfax Co., Virginia in December 1799.

By the time Washington died, mourning jewelry had evolved with changing attitudes toward death and with a greater focus on sentiment.  The style changed to represent the lighter rococo styles and later Neo-classical designs became popular.  The skulls and coffins were replaced by sepia-toned women dressed in billowing robes lamenting at a tomb, inscribed urns, and weeping willow trees in bucolic landscapes.  Many rings and brooches were lined with pearls to represent tears and included a simple twist of the deceased’s hair.

GW Locket Brooch

The octagonal locket dates from between 1800 to 1825 and has been turned into a brooch. The lock of hair, believed to be that of George Washington, is tied in a figure eight type knot and rests on a mat of woven hair. The lock of hair was supposedly given to Captain Robert Smith who knew and served with George during the war. After Captain Smith lost his wife, he went to visit the Washingtons at Mount Vernon and became friends with Nelly Custis, who gave him this lock of her great-grandfather’s hair. When Captain Smith died, he willed the pendant to his cousin and it passed through the Smith family until donated by a relative to The George Washington Foundation in 1925.

The decorative twist of a loved ones hair for memorial purposes was not new, but it did come into greater use in the 18th century and peaked during the Victorian era.  Hair is one of the few personal mementos people could keep from a loved one.  Human hair contains keratin which is fairly resistant to decomposition particularly when kept in a sealed environment.   The permanence of hair and memory is best summed up with a quote from a journal article of the time discussing female beauty, “Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting 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 a friend, we may almost look up to heaven, and compare notes with the angelic nature; may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.’” (Page 76)

Much Brooch 1

This traditional mourning brooch dates from 1790 to 1810. It contains many neoclassical imagery typical of the time including the weeping woman in classical dress sitting by a tomb, a willow tree, and a ceremonial urn carving. It is inscribed “Much Lov’d, Much Mourn’d”and is painted on ivory encased in a copper mount. The back contains a braid of brownish-blond hair under a glass cover.

Much Brooch 2

In the 19th century the use of more elaborate hair work became increasingly popular. The Victorians developed a strict etiquette for mourning rituals and dress.  The stages specified different colors, fabrics and even jewelry at different times during the mourning period, the length of which varied depending on the mourner’s relationship to the deceased.  Mourning jewelry made of hair was allowed during the second stage (usually about a year into the mourning ritual) creating a rise in not only unique hair jewelry but do-it-yourself guides to making pieces with loved one’s hair.

Memorial jewelry and hair work began to wane at the turn of the 20th century and now these pieces have become curios, often found in antique shops and museum storage collecting dust on shelfs.   Sadly, most of the pieces have no information relating to who they were made for or the names of the mourned. Instead, we are left with an unidentified plait of hair or gold band symbolizing the only piece left from the life of a loved individual.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager