Field Report 1: Hair, Hair Everywhere

I am not a fan of museums. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what they do in preserving artifacts or educating the public, it’s just that they don’t meld well with my brain. Walking around for three hours and pressing your face up against a glass panel to read a paragraph about the importance of an object isn’t too appealing to me.

My love of history comes from a love of great stories and an unrelenting interest in how people live their lives.  Not generic plaques meant to convey basic facts about the past.

But viewing the special collections gave us a unique insight to the world of grief. My first thought was just how unAmerican the whole ordeal of taking the deceased’s hair and making finery of it was. It was totally alien to me. I don’t mean to look down upon it, in fact I quite like the tradition and think it’s a shame that it’s gone.

Most funerals I have been to were open casket. The bodies inside were “peaceful.” More importantly, they were meant to look undisturbed. To even touch them (besides a gentle kiss or a caress of the hand) would be seen as a heinous offense. They must seem like they are sleeping; though I believe this to have less to do with denial that Philippe Aries chalks it up to and more about the acceptance for the grievers. But I digress.

Aries goes into this fear of the corpse and of death in general and he makes it clear that this is a modern phenomenon. That’s why it seemed so unAmerican to me. 19th century America had more influence from the Europeans than post WWII America, which became its own beast at that point.

It was also brought up in discussion that it seemed strange for Protestants to do something so very Catholic, such as making jewelry from the dead’s hair. This statement is in dire need of a rebuttal.

This is not a Catholic tradition.

Being buried near a saint’s cathedral is Catholic, or so one would think. There is plenty of evidence that shows that Greeks in their Dark Ages (probably around the time the Illiad and the Odyssey were being passed around) were buried in much the same way near venerated people – close but never touching the building they rested in. Not only this, but being buried with material objects has been going on since prehistory. What their purpose is may be unclear but the pattern is nonetheless there.

Catholic traditions in general stem from their ancient roots due to the fact that they were all converted with the velvet glove – the indigenous peoples were allowed to keep many of their traditions but would have to change a few things around. Yuletide would become Christmas, for instance.

So too is this true with the use of hair as finery. My knowledge is too scarce to go into the details of hair and ancient Europeans, but I do know they found it had some sort of power – Clovis I and many other kings in preChristian Europe refused to cut their hair for just that reason.

What I mean to say is that this seems to be a European tradition. I have not done the research and I would like to look more into this lost art, but to conclude that this was Catholic simply because Europe was also doing it at the time seems inaccurate at best to me.

But what I find more fascinating is that it has become taboo. I can only assume that this was due to the rise of materialism, industrialization, and America’s growing sense of self.

Materialism because of the growth of photographs as true memories of who that person once was. The fall of the importance of one’s own body with heightened attention to the distractions from it. Industrialization because of the ease of transportation and growth of the nuclear family. Finally, America’s identity because rather than adopting ideals from its trade partners and immigrants, it created its own: namely capitalism. These last two examples may not seem to lend too much to my case, but it shows the drastic shift of values within a short span of time. Perhaps it shows the willingness to drop certain traditions in order to adapt to new ones.

But what do I know? I’m just theorizing in a small vacuum chamber over here.

3 thoughts on “Field Report 1: Hair, Hair Everywhere”

  1. What a lively way to start discussion here! Your point about this being a broader phenomenon than just Catholic, or even European, is well taken. However, I believe that the Catholic church, and Christian believers themselves, did give special force to the veneration of relics. See the Church’s statement at the Council of Trent (which was opposed in theory by most Protestant denominations):
    and the Catholic Encyclopedia’s treatment of the practice:
    Historians’ treatment of the subject include Joan Cruz’s _Relics_ (1983) and Colleen McDannell’s _Material Christianity_ (1995).
    Our larger point last time agrees with you, though, that such religiously-motivated behavior transcends denominational boundaries.

  2. Your observation about hair and King Clovis I made me consider something that today is considered a gracious part of giving of one’s self so that another may benefit. As the saving or transferring of ones hair due to postmortem or selfless donation was considered a normality, today we do it in the name of giving self-esteem when going through chemotherapy or some other type of medical procedure that causes the patients hair to fall out.

    What I am describing is called Locks of Love and today has become a way for children to regain some normality of life without the constant gawking due to a bald head. While it is different than what we know about antebellum practices, it still retains that aspect of giving of ones self to allow someone else to regain a “memory” of sorts, as in a memory of what it was like to have a full flowing head of hair and remember again what it was like to have hair instead of a condition that is eliminating their hair while trying to save their lives.

    It may be a stretch to associate the two periods and purposes, but it is still a way of giving of something from one’s mortal self for the benefit of another.

  3. As you pointed out sometimes, over time, traditions evolve and change. While it is very true that hair jewelry is not a thriving industry anymore the keeping of hair as a keepsake still is. Walk into any Hallmark and in the baby area there are a variety of cute little boxes for baby’s first curl and baby’s first tooth. Most baby memory scrap books also have a place for baby’s first curl. This may have more to do with the passing of right as a baby’s first haircut is usually a segway into toddlerhood then a link to mourning jewelry but the fact that it is a hair keepsake from a loved one ties it to the keepsakes of the hair jewelry, a rememberance of a loved one from a time gone by. Maybe it is like changing Yuletide into Christmas , hair jewelry into first curls.

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