Monday, September 26, 2011

The Art of Human Hair

QUESTION: My grandmother left me several items, one of which is a little round porcelain bowl that’s about four inches wide with a lid that has a 1½-inch hole in the top. Can you tell me what this might be?

ANSWER: The covered bowl you have is known as a hair receiver. Back in Victorian times, women used to save the hair from their brushes—most had long hair that needed to be brushed at least once a day to keep it clean—and also from trimmings.

Victorian women’s dressing tables often had a hair receiver as part of a dresser set consisting of receiver, powder jar, hatpin holder, brush, comb, nail buffer and tray. Many carried on the tradition into the early 20th century. They would comb the hair from their brushes and push it through the hole in the receiver. Later, they would stuff it into pillows or pincushions. Since women—and men--- didn’t wash their hair but once a week, they would apply oils to add scent and shine to their hair. This oil helped to lubricate straight pins and needles, making them easier to insert into fabric.

These women also used the hair they saved to make “ratts”—a small ball of hair that they inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. They made this by stuffing a sheer hairnet with the hair from the receiver until it was about the size of a potato, then sewing it shut. Women most likely used tangled hair from their hairbrushes to make these. A Victorian woman considered her hairstyle the epitome of style and took great pains to make it stand out.

But the most well-known uses for hair was to make remembrances of deceased loved ones. And though many people believe this practice originated in the mid 19th century, it actually began in the mid 17th. Even at that time, people wanted to have personal keepsakes of their loved ones, but since photography hadn’t been invented yet, they turned to jewelry made of human hair.

In the 1600s, people created medallions in the form of initials in gold laid on a background of woven hair set under crystal. Women wore these as memorial jewelry, usually in the form of brooches.

After this type of jewelry went out of style in the 18th century because women thought it grotesque, it once again appeared in the mid 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria. Instead of the gold initials of the deceased, women used seed pearls and watercolors along with enamels to create a more elaborate picture under the glass. Often, they spread the hair out to look like a weeping willow tree.

To make keepsakes for a deceased loved one, women cut the hair from the deceased's head.
Prior to the 1850s, they stored the hair in cloth bags until they had enough to make a piece. Unlike the tangled hair used for making ratts, women preferred using cut hair to make their keepsake pieces. In the last half of the century, porcelain and ceramic manufacturers began to produce storage containers specifically designed to hold hair.

While most of the jewelry made of hair was for mourning purposes, some women made pieces to give to their living loved ones. Some made watch chains woven from their hair to give to their husbands and boyfriends to take into battle during the Civil War.

The popularity of hair jewelry peaked in the 1850s but after the Civil War another trend took hold. Instead of creating keepsake jewelry, women began producing works of art from human hair. They employed different colors of hair to create pictures and mosaics under glass domes or frames. Sometimes these mimicked famous paintings. At other times, they created stilllifes of flowers. They also gave the popular family tree new meaning by making one using the hair from each family member, plus pictures of the family, ribbons, dried flowers, butterflies, and even little stuffed birds.

Primarily made in porcelain and ceramic, manufacturers also made hair receivers of glass, silver, silver plate, wood and celluloid. The glass types often had brass or silver tops. While the round ones seemed to be the most popular, there were oval ones as well. And though some rested on little legs or pedestals, most had flat bottoms. Skilled workers painted many of the porcelain ones with floral or Oriental designs on both the receiver and top. Others had simple gilt borders around the edge of the top. Companies such as Limoges, Noritake, O.& Prussia, R.S. Prussia and Wistoria all made hair receivers.

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