Jewelry made from human hair: the original social network?

For Pauline C. Smith’s short story “A Flower in Her Hair,” see Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July 1968, pp. 18-25.

This story owes a great deal to Helen Sheumaker’s book Love Entwined, and to the collection of Historic New England.

Music featured in this episode:

Ocean of Bowling Balls,” by Clement Gelly


In 1968, a writer named Pauline C. Smith published a short story called “A Flower in Her Hair.” It tells the story of an orphaned girl with bright red hair visiting her strange relatives in the mountains. Strangest of all is Aunt Abbie. Abbie lives alone in a cabin on a cliff. When the story begins, another aunt named Melinda takes our protagonist, the girl, to visit Aunt Abbie’s cabin.

“Sidling into the room,” Smith writes, “the girl backed to a chair, feeling the slick, wooden arms of it with her finger-tips. As she sat on the edge of the broken cane seat, Aunt Abbie stood before her.

Abbie: “Marty’s girl. Such pretty red hair.”

Abbie’s talons hovered over the girl’s shining head, suspended there.   Aunt Abbie turned to Melinda.

Abbie: “Did you ever see such pretty red hair?

Melinda shook her head. Aunt Abbie took another covetous look at the flaming hair.

Abbie: “Such a pretty red. I’ll fetch some grapejuice.”

Aunt Abbie scuttles from the room and returns with that grape juice. It turns out Abbie’s at work on an embroidery project. A wreath.

Abbie: “So, you want to see the wreath?”

The girl: “Wreath?”

Abbie: “The hair wreath.”

The girl agrees with trepidation. Smith writes, “The girl stared down and into a circlet of flowers painstakingly woven against the linen background. Twined into the floral hoop bloomed the white of cherry blossom, the gray of cactus spine, yellow daisies, brown iris, ashen lilies, goldenrod. Aunt Abbie bent her head, her liver-colored claw pointing out a portion of the wreath.”

Abbie: “See them? Them are black-eyed Susans. The centers come straight from your ma’s hair. Pretty, ain’t they?”

The girl: “My mother’s hair?”

Abbie: “This here’s made of hair. Didn’t you know?”

The girl: “Human hair? All of it?”

Abbie: “Just the family, though. I wan’t never one to fool with any that ain’t kin.”

All the family members worked into the hair wreath are dead, and we soon learn that the wreath’s not quite finished.

Abbie: “I ain’t got that rose in yet… Once I get that in, the wreath’ll be done.”

The grapejuice Aunt Abbie has offered the girl turns out to be drugged. The girl passes out. Aunt Abbie shoves her into a gulch, killing her, and then clips a lock of the girl’s red, red hair to finish the wreath. The story ends with Melinda observing Abbie’s handiwork.

Melinda: “That’s a mighty pretty rose.”

Abbie: “Mighty pretty. And ain’t it red?”

This story is a horror story. But the author did not make up that creepy hair wreath. For over a century, Americans wore jewelry made of family members’ hair, which they either commissioned or made themselves. Hairwork, as it was called, was wildly popular. Then, starting around World War I, it diminished, until by 1968, a writer like Smith could tell a story about hair that draws on a sense of disgust pretty much continuous with how we think today. But long ago, Americans read hair quite differently. As one advertisement from the 1850s put it:

“These gems of Hair Jewelry, interwoven with … the pearl, that gem which is interwoven with the pure image of our little eternity of time—they call into being thoughts and emotions of affections—remembrances of husband or wife, lover or child, parents and children.”

Helen Sheumaker: It could be the hair of a friend. It could be the hair of a loved one. It could be the hair of someone who had died, that you were remembering by wearing their hair.

That’s Helen Sheumaker. Helen wrote a book about hairwork, called Love Entwined. She says hair jewelry was immensely popular from the 1700s to the early 1900s because hairwork presented a public means of displaying a private relationship.

HS: A good example would be a woman who had a piece of hairwork jewelry made, that incorporated the hair of her mother, which would be grey, her own hair, which was dark brown, and her, say, daughter’s hair, which was a blonde. And you could weave this hair into a piece of jewelry that actually had a plaid that incorporated the grey, the brown, and the blonde.

But hair jewelry couldn’t just be cut hair.

HS: Human hair jewelry and hairwork wasn’t useful if it was just a piece of hair. No matter how personal the hairwork jewelry was—it was literally made out of the hair of, say, your child—it still was made into a form that was knowable to other people.

“Citizens:—would you … preserve the hair of living or deceased relatives as mementos of your affection? … Then call at once!”

That ad’s from the 1860s. The jewelry such a hairworker produced could take any shape. I saw so many at the archive of Historic New England, where Associate Curator Laura Johnson showed me the best of their three- or four-hundred-piece collection of hair jewelry. Most are black or brown.

Laura Johnson: I’ve never seen red hair mourning jewelry. That actually hadn’t occurred to me until we were standing there talking about it, that I hadn’t seen it.

She showed me a fat brown bracelet with a texture like mesh or honeycomb.

LJ: It looks very contemporary, to my eyes, at least. And it’s very textural. It looks soft to the touch but it’s not. It’s actually quite firm.

The hair itself can’t tell us anything, of course, but when we have access to hairwork’s private, hidden meanings, they’re profound. Some of the most powerful examples are means of bridging great distances, like this piece. A woman moving abroad had this made from her own hair as a gift for her sister.

LH: She was giving her this as a way to remain in contact with her.

PG: Remain in literal contact with her.

LH: Exactly.

Laura also showed me a tiny ring made of woven hair—

LJ: and then set with little gold findings to make it look like a belt.

PG: It’s not a functional belt, is it?

LJ: It is.

PG: It’s a tiny little functional belt, about the size of a dime!

LJ: That you can belt around your finger. And this was made as one of a group of objects, with the hair of a very popular minister from a small town in Massachusetts. So when he passed on, his hair was collected and worked as rings and then given out to his congregation.

PG: Wow.

LJ: Yeah.

PG: So everybody got, everybody got a little piece of the minister’s hair.

LJ: A little piece of him. To wear.

Looking at this strangely pleasing miniature belt, I found myself barely able to believe I was looking at a dead man’s hair. It had been worked into something so totally different. Hairworkers advertised working the hair of the dead, too:

“How pleasant to preserve in so beautiful of form the Relics of our loved ones.”

Laura told me about a family with five daughters who each made a set of earrings, a broach, or a bracelet from their dead father’s hair.

LJ: And each one got a different piece of jewelry. With their father’s hair, and then when their mother died, they added their mother’s hair as well.

One daughter wore these hair earrings for her engagement portrait, so that her late father could, quite literally, be there.

Laura says visitors often react viscerally when she reveals what these items are.

LJ: They immediately back off, their hands go behind their backs and they kind of shrug a little bit, and they wince.

Hairwork seems difficult to understand, but in its way, it’s simple: giving part of yourself, wearing someone else. As Helen Sheumaker observes in her book, “There is no code to be broken.” We just can’t handle that simple fact. Here’s Helen again.

HS: When we see it today, it can be creepy. You know, it’s off-putting. It’s hard to get around the fact that that was somebody’s body.

There’s a shade of horror that comes from the orphaned parts of another’s body. I think of the character Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, a man given a special brutalism by the human teeth he wears as cufflinks.

But I learned from Helen’s book that even during hairwork’s day, people felt revulsion toward the hair of strangers. Without the story behind the hair, hair was totally creepy. For instance, the world of hair jewelry stood in contrast to what was even then a massive, international market for real hair wigs. This is from a newspaper article about a wig factory:

“The place, in fact, was redolent of hair. There was hair in all the drawers, hair in cardboard boxes, hair hanging from the ceiling and clinging to the walls, hair upon the counters, upon the chairs, and in the very inkstand; there was even hair in the air itself, moving about as it were in clouds, which when you agitated them disagreeably caressed you.”

Awful! Indeed, in the late 1800s, making one’s own hairwork became more and more popular due to a pervasive fear that if you sent your hair away to be worked, the shop would throw away your loved one’s hair and send back some dead person’s hair, cut from a wig, pre-woven. One editorial writer suggested that the professionals’ skill simply isn’t worth the repugnant possibility:

“The liability of having the hair of some other person substituted for that of our own cherished friend, or that careless hands have idly drawn through their fingers the tresses which it appears almost sacrilegious to have even looked upon with a cold glance.”

Even then, hair could mean either intimacy or horror, depending on how you read it. We just don’t know how to engage with the idea that hair might hold an intense intimacy. I think it’s possible to bridge the gap, though. I came across a story that suggests, maybe, that some of hairwork’s meaning remains available. In 2011, in Boise, Idaho, Addie Higgins—

Addie Higgins: Hello?

—got a haircut.

AH: Yeah. My junior high dance was coming up, so I decided to basically just cut all my hair off and get it really short, cause I hadn’t ever done that before. Pixie cut, or whatever.

But before Addie cut off her hair, her older sister Lily asked for it. Lily was away at Harvard, in Massachusetts, and wanted all the hair in one chunk, if possible.

PG: Did that seem like a strange thing for her to ask?

AH: Lily does a lot of weird things pretty frequently. Good weird things, interesting weird things. So I also knew she had a reason for asking.

Addie agreed, and asked her hairdresser for a pixie cut in as few cuts as possible. Afterward, Addie wasn’t totally sure about the haircut.

AH: I liked it for about two days, and then I wasn’t able to style it, so

PG: Oh no!

But nevertheless Lily did receive one severed ponytail of her sister’s hair.

Lily Higgins: She's actually a redhead.

That’s Lily.

LH: That gave it a special kind of flair, because it clearly wasn’t anyone else’s hair.

At the time, Lily was writing her undergraduate senior thesis on hairwork, and she’d decided to try making it herself. She’d already worked with anonymous hair—

LH: probably from the heads of multiple people, I have no idea, it’s probably from some wig that I’ve cut up to use.

—so now she wanted to experiment—

LH: to kind of explore the difference. How the process seems different, or maybe more weighty, when you’re working with hair that actually has a biography, that has a connection to someone that you not only know, but that you, you know, love.

PG: Your sister.

LH: Yeah, my sister. Exactly.

She washed her sister’s hair and then ran the strands through her makeshift hairworking apparatus, a cardboard disc with a hole in the center and notches around the edge.

LH: So how hairwork works, is that you have the strands all divided and tied off.

Each section is numbered and sits in a lettered notch. And each pattern, each different braid, prescribes a series of movements by number and letter.

LH: And so you’re crossing them over and creating this kind of complicated pattern, that you can’t visualize, so you have to kind of check to make sure you’re doing it right based on the number.

It’s almost like running a simple computer program. By following this script, a braid emerges: Lily’s sister’s hair growing into wearable jewelry. At the time, across the country from home, Lily didn’t hear from her sister all that often.

LH: She didn’t even have a cell phone at that point. I’m in much more constant communication with my little sister, now. We text all the time. That sort of disconnect probably would have been stronger than it is now. Even though I’m still really far away.

PG: Yeah.

LH: I think at that point it would have been more pronounced.

PG: You’re right about that, though. Like I was also, my brother was an early teenager, one of my brothers, when I left for college, and you come back at vacations, and they’ve, like, aged visibly.

LH: Definitely.

PG: Like, holy crap, you’re as tall as I am, now.

I have this vivid memory of returning home one summer to find my youngest brother, Clement, taller than me and sporting a haircut done by his friend Mitch, distinctive because it was rough in its execution, short sides, long on top, as was the style that year. A hipster’s haircut, with a sharpness of contrast that declared self-determination. Clement didn’t have Facebook at the time, so the look totally surprised me. That haircut flew like a flag atop the time that had passed while I was gone.

PG: But you were working with her hair at the time.

LH: Yeah, and I think at the time it didn’t feel as strange to me, but I really was thinking about it last night. Thinking, you know, wow. At this point, she seems so grown up and so different from who she was, you know, at that sort of moment in time.

And it turns out Addie felt the process had a similar weight, though she never saw the finished piece.

AH: Nope. I never saw it.

She remembers feeling lucky to participate in Lily’s project.

AH: I would say around the time that she asked for my hair, I don’t know, I think I kind of reached a point where we had a lot more to talk about, and I was old enough to, you know, be curious into the things she was studying at college. I was excited to be able to kind of participate even in an odd way. So, yeah, it was a really weird hair-sharing connection.

The paradox of hairwork is that, as intimate and intense as hairwork can be, hair can’t speak for itself, so it’s very vulnerable to the obscuring drift of time. Many hairwork items are now anonymous. Here’s Laura again.

LJ: Yeah, it’s deeply frustrating for me. Because I want to be able to tell their personal stories.

But even today, despite its muteness, despite our inability to read its meaning, this hair remains heavy with significance. Helen Sheumaker.

HS: We have a actual physical remnant of the past, but we need to be mature about it.

Despite the terminal anonymity of much hairwork, Helen told me,

HS: It’s impossible, for me, to escape the idea and the fact that this was somebody’s hair. And someone cared for that individual. And had chosen to preserve that individual in this form. And that is a true fact. That’s a fact from the past. I don’t want it all to be, you know, it’s just artifice. The fact that there’s this artificial structure around them doesn’t mean that any of the actions were artificial.

HS: But it’s almost as if we’re getting a, kind of a garbled signal from the past.

LH: The whole reason that we react to hair, and we don’t understand hairwork anymore, is that we still—I think we actually do understand the symbolic properties that hair has to be meaningful, we just don't want to engage with them that closely.

HS: We’ve just shifted our ways that we express these sentimental attachments. So people may balk at the idea of wearing, like, hair jewelry, but they don’t hesitate, for example, to fill their Instagram account with images of themselves with their children. They don’t balk at the idea of getting a tote bag made with a photograph of their grandchild on it. We just don't use the natural, like, bodily pieces of them.

When Helen said this, I thought, of course. I thought of the night I quit Facebook. It was New Years’ eve.

I was in a bar with my family, I’d had a beer, and I thought, it’s time. I pulled up Facebook on my phone. The “Deactivate” command is buried in the settings menu.

When I found it, I learned that Facebook’s algorithms always make one last play to reel defectors back in. I found myself looking at a picture of my friend Peter.

Facebook asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? Peter will miss you.”

Yes, I thought. We’ll keep in touch by email. I clicked okay.

Then Facebook showed me a pict ure of me with my girlfriend at her college graduation.

Facebook: “But she will miss you too.”

We’ll be just fine, I thought.

FB: “If you’re totally sure.”

In the picture, a cardinal red mortarboard sat atop the manycolored true red of her hair. I clicked “okay.”

Facebook showed me more pictures of me smiling beside my friends, pictures they’d posted or I’d posted. There was that time junior year of college I found an onion lying around in Peter and Zach’s apartment and we’d all passed it around trading bites as if it were an apple. We looked happy.

FB: “You’ll never see this again.”

PG: Can we get this over with? It’s not as if I’m choosing to become an astronaut.

FB: “Have it your way. We don’t need you. You’re the one that will disappear.”

Facebook dumped me back at the welcome screen.

FB: “Sign up. Connect with friends and the world around you on Facebook.”

I may have embellished the terms of Facebook’s argument, but Facebook’s last-minute emotional appeal is real. It happens to every brave soul who quits Facebook. I still think about Facebook’s attempt to hold my heart hostage, though it’s been nearly two years since that night. I think about the teams of highly paid people who agreed upon and wrote that insistent refrain of: they’ll miss you, they’ll miss you, they’ll miss you. There’s a subtler argument embedded in that sentiment, and it’s this: however you feel about these people, it’s not legible outside our framework.

Thinking about this now makes me want to quit Facebook all over again.

I pocketed my phone. I looked around and before the feeling faded I tried to savor it. I was no longer linked to my ideal double on the internet: just me, here, in a bar with my family, waiting for the new year, as inscrutable as unread hair.

Episode 7: Hairwork

October 12, 2016