Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Victorian Hair Recycling

QUESTION: I bought an unusual item at a yard sale last weekend. It’s a small round container, which I believe is made of some sort of plastic, that has a lid with a one-inch hole in its center. Can you please tell me what this object would have been used for?

ANSWER: You bought a hair saver, an item that isn’t seen anymore. Hair savers, once found on the top of most dressers and vanities, were small containers with a finger-wide hole in the lid, through which women poked pieces of their hair. Made of a variety of materials, including glass, silver, bronze, and later celluloid, a form of early plastic, some of the nicest ones are of hand-painted porcelain.

After brushing her hair before bed each evening, a Victorian woman would remove the accumulated hair from her brush and comb and place it through the opening of the receiver for storage.

She could use the accumulated hair to stuff into small bags of sheer netting to make a ratt which looked like a tube of sausage. A woman would insert a ratt into her hairstyle to add volume and fullness, especially for popular styles like The Pompadour or The Gibson. Hair could also be used as stuffing for items like pin cushions or small pillows. Unfortunately, it was too knotted and broken to use to make jewelry, which was popular in the 19th century.

Since Victorian women didn’t wash their hair as often as they do today, they often used fragrant oils to add scent and shine to their hair. The residual oil made the hair an ideal stuffing for pincushions because it lubricated the pins, making it easier for them to pierce material. Also, because hair was softer and less prickly than pinfeathers, it was ideal to use for stuffing small pillows.

Glass hair receivers often had brass or silver tops. Though manufacturers produced hair receivers in a variety of shapes and sizes, most are round or oval. They consist of the receiver bottom and a removable top with a round hole in the middle through which to put the hair. Some were made with graceful legs or pedestals to rest upon, but most have flat bottoms. The more unique ones are in the shape of animals and other figures.

Artisans working for companies such as Limoges, Noritake, O.S. Prussia, R.S. Prussia and Wistoria hand-painted porcelain pieces with floral or Oriental designs on both the receiver and top. Simpler ones featured merely a gilt border around the edge of the top.

Because articles made of hair were most popular prior to the 1891 McKinley Act, many older hair receivers show no mark of maker or country of origin. Pieces made after this date bear Japanese and European markings.

Prices for hair receivers, based upon condition, intricacy of design, whether it’s hand-painted or not, manufacturer, and age, vary widely. Celluloid and plastic bring the lowest prices, usually $15 to $30, while hand-painted porcelain pieces from a major manufacturer in excellent condition can bring $65 to $100. Many beautiful single pieces average $50 to $75, while sets containing other dresser items usually start around $100.

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