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Macabre jewelry rooted in human hair

October 21, 2014

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life

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Victorian society embraced the wearing of hair jewelry as a physical reminder of eminent death. Couples often inscribed personalized messages,  such as this lovers knot engraved with  “H. A. McA. April 12, 1857.” This piece is attributed to Henrietta Orbison, who married Hugh McAllister in 1841.

Victorian society embraced the wearing of hair jewelry as a physical reminder of  death. Couples often engraved personalized messages, such as this lovers knot engraved with “H. A. McA. April 12, 1857.” This piece is attributed to Henrietta Orbison, who married Hugh McAllister in 1841.

 

This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure is a collection of jewelry made from human hair. While we might consider it macabre today, the wearing of hair jewelry in Victorian society was accepted and embraced as a physical reminder of death. Museum collections today contain necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, lockets, brooches and even wreaths.

The use of pearls symbolized “tears” of the mourner, while additions such as gold or polished black jet represented various stages of mourning. Clothing catalogues and women’s magazines ran advertisements for custom designed pieces, as well as patterns and instructions for making the jewelry at home. Hair jewelry became so mass produced, that some companies were accused of using pre-purchased hair to create a piece, rather than the hair provided by the customer. Hair jewelry could be fashioned at home on a braiding table, using only a few materials such as thread, a knife and gum adherent.

Although hair jewelry was commonly worn to mourn the loss of a loved one, there were other reasons for its rise in popularity during the 19th century. Hair jewelry also represented genteel accomplishment or symbolized friendship and sentimentality. Friends exchanged locks of hair as tokens of camaraderie. Couples engraved hair jewelry with personalized messages, such as this lovers knot inscribed with “H. A. McA. April 12, 1857.” This piece, currently in the State Museum’s collection, is attributed to Henrietta Orbison, who married Hugh McAllister in 1841. McAllister was a law partner and father-in-law of Gov. James Beaver.  He was also an architect of Penn State University’s Old Main building.

Prior to advances in medicine and technology, hair jewelry provided an avenue for people to live forever. Collections Advancement Project Curator Katie McGowan selected these items for this week’s pick.

 

About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.