Hairwork

Mar 27, 2017

Hairwork Jewelry Equipment
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Think of it as a tiara, a delicate little crown your daughter may have worn for her uncle’s wedding, a princess-like thing made up of clusters of what might seem dried tendrils of garden plants. It’s nothing at all like a wig. It’s far too, well, artsy; but there’s no denying that it is a hair piece, even though I’m sure no one ever wore one. They decorated their sitting room walls, these delicate crown-like objects of human hair framed artfully and hung proudly.

People who had them or wanted them called them “hairwork.” Which is exactly what they are. Imagine that—a framed hairy tiara, behind glass, above the fireplace, collecting admiring glances. I’m serious.

Not long ago, I saw two of them in one day--"hairwork," an art form obviously of great worth to proper folks of the 19th century. The “hairwork” piece in the home of the Tabor abolitionist Reverend John Todd could well have been woven from his own children’s hair. Visit sometime. You’ll see it.  There it is yet today on his wall. Probably the Missus put it there.

Hair Work exhibited in the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Had he cared to, the Reverend John Todd could have put up “hairwork” in every room of his little manse on Tabor’s square if he’d chosen to slash away at his own huge and bushy beard. But he didn’t. Thank goodness. Whose hair composes the hairwork on the wall of the Todd family home, I suppose will likely never be known.  

We do know this much: once upon a time giving up one's hair was held to be both an honor and a sacrifice. It's likely, however, that the hair in the Todd family’s wall-hanging (that's a difficult phrase to say, isn't it?) belonged to someone else, perhaps a friend or relative. That too seems a little untoward. Just exactly what kind of motive would compel someone to make artwork out of his own hair, then give it away for someone else to hang above fireplace? Some graces don’t translate easily into the 21st century.

Hairwork techniques, I’ve read, were sophisticated enough to make designs from relatively short cuts of hair, meaning you didn’t have to be a Nazarene to create delightful hairwork.

I’d never seen such things before, and then, that day, there were two within hours.

The second graces the gloriously Italianate General Crook House in old Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Major General George Crook was the Commander of the Army of the Platte, highly decorated, whose Civil War resume included most major battles—Bull Run, Antietam, and Chickamauga. His beautiful post-war home is a marvel and joy. The Crook’s guest book included any number of Presidents and potentates, General Crook being one of the most celebrated Indian fighters of the west.

There are differences. The Rev. Todd’s hairwork is more plain, less baroque, and rather drearily monochrome. Major General Crook’s might well have been created from assorted and thoughtfully chosen beauty shop snips. It’s more, what?—fancy, I guess I’d say.

I don’t care—seriously, hairwork makes me shudder. Anything's possible, of course. I wouldn't doubt that somewhere across the face of this great nation, a man or a woman is yet today plotting out his or her own hairwork art. But my gut reaction, in both the Todd house and in the Crook House, was "eeooouuu."

I guess good old American business enterprise killed off "hairwork art.” Historians speculate that once its production became an enterprise rather than folk art, people began to suspect that its raw materials were harvested from cemeteries. Once entrepreneurs determined there was a buck to be made in fancy hairwork wall-hangings, they started turning them out, dime a dozen. That's when, you might say, grave suspicions arose.

And thus it ended, its coffin sealed forever by potentially horrifying sources for hairwork art you could just pick up on the cheap from Sears Roebuck.

Once upon a time, it seems, hairwork art was gloriously high fashion. Today, such hairy tiaras evoke little more than a shudder.

Seems to me here's a sermon there. Or three. Or four. Or more, if, like me, your naked pate stands in great need of real hairwork.  

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Dr. James Schaap reads from "Small Wonders," a collection of Siouxland histories, every Monday morning at 7:44 on Siouxland Public Media.