Hair museum holds history lock by lock
Says the owner, 'Never underestimate the value of a piece of hair'
INDEPENDENCE, MO. ? Tucked along the candy-coated cars parked along the Miracle Mile, in an unassuming little shop of hair, reside the ghosts of Abe Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Ronald Regan.
Cock your ear and you almost can hear:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation …”
“Ha-ppy Birth-day Mr. Pre-si-dent …”
“Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes …”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Leila Cohoon oversees this museum of famous, and not so famous, ghosts.
Their stories and DNA are embodied in wisps and locks of elaborately crafted hair wreaths and hairwork jewelry at Leila’s Museum of Hair, 1333 Noland Road. The museum is in two rooms of her cosmetology school.
“This is the only part of these human beings that are still here in the world,” says the 76-year-old, petite platinum blonde, sweeping her hand around the room. Her long fingernails are painted Halloween orange. “It’s genealogy done with human hair before the camera was invented.”
More than 400 of these family tresses encased in shadow boxes line the walls, ceiling to floor.
Hair wreaths are horseshoe-shaped and composed of strands or locks of hair woven with wire to form flowers. Often, beads, colored embroidery floss and artificial stamens are worked into the pieces.
Crosses woven from hair, old black and white photos and ancestors’ names often appear above wreaths.
Hair crafts also are created as remembrance or mourning pieces.
More than 2,000 pieces of hairwork jewelry – including rings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, watch chains, hair pins and hat pins – also are on display. Cohoon wears a sepia ring and brooch – jewelry depicting detailed scenes painted with hair.
“Hair is pulverized into a very fine powder and mixed in with paint,” she explains.
Cohoon says the oldest example of hairwork dates back to 12th century Norway. Her oldest museum piece, a brooch inside a crystal case, was made in 1680.
“Never underestimate the value of a piece of hair,” she says. “Hair is a very sacred part of someone.”
Not everyone is fascinated with hair wreaths and hair jewelry, concedes Cohoon.
For some, it’s downright hair-raising.
Hairwork she showcased in a display at the old Independence City Hall took at least one unsuspecting viewer by surprise.
“A lady looks up from the case and gasps, ‘It’s hair!’ and turns around and nearly runs into a plate glass window trying to get out of there,” she says, laughing.
Angie Cooper, an assistant at Leila’s Hair Museum, says some people find hair crafts morbid.
“They think it’s macabre,” she says. “They’re bothered that it’s the hair of people no longer here or that it’s hair at all.”
On occasion, she says museum visitors will choose not to complete the tour.
“Some sit out while friends look because they’re just creeped out. But hair is not different than any other personal possession.”
Leila’s Hair Museum is listed as one of the Top 10 Quirkiest Attractions along the U.S. Interstates by the Society of American Travel Writers.
And it’s featured in the most recent issue of Roadside America, “the online guide to offbeat tourist attractions.”
The spirit of a local favorite also may reside at Leila’s Hair Museum.
Six baby blond tufts of hair could belong to the late Harry S. Truman.
“It’s a hair wreath made in the neighborhood where Truman grew up,” Cohoon said.
It was a common practice for women to weave hair belonging to friends, neighbors and club or church members into hair crafts.
A 4-foot frame, leaning against a wall, holds the elaborate wreath woven with mostly brunette hair. The blond sprigs of hair accent center blooms.
The piece is on loan to the museum. Cohoon said she’s heard for many years that such a wreath existed and is thrilled to have it on display.
Recently, with the owner present, Cohoon snipped one of the sections of blond hair to be tested for DNA.
If the golden locks prove to be Truman’s, visitors at Leila’s Hair Museum might hear one more famous voice among the ghostly chatter:
“The buck stops here.”