Hair art history unlocked

Practice popular in 1800s leads off Civil War series

History and hair were woven together Wednesday night at a unique workshop that kicked off the 13th annual Civil War on the Western Frontier series.

Helen Sheumaker, a Kansas University graduate and coordinator of education at the William Holmes McGuffey Museum at Miami University of Ohio, presented her research on the history of hair work in America at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

Popular in the U.S. between 1770 and 1900, Sheumaker said the white middle class used the hair of a loved one, dead or alive, to create jewelry, wall decorations and keepsakes.

A family tree from the 1800s illustrated how the hair of family members was literally intertwined with their genealogy.

People would also wear necklaces or brooches with someone’s hair.

“It wasn’t creepy,” she said. People thought the “hair looked like that person.”

The decorative objects were first created by artisans, and up until the Civil War, it was a treasured and skilled art.

Eventually, the craft lost its sentiment. Clothing styles and interior design changed, making hair displays less attractive as well, she said.

After the Civil War, hair art made a comeback, though much more commercialized. “In the 1870s, several companies in this country were formed simply to create hair work,” Sheumaker said. “It increased the popularity.”

“One thing about the Civil War, of course, is that national trauma and individual experience, I think, gave hair work a very specific meaning,” she said. “It wasn’t always attached with mourning, but it’s my sense the people in the 1870s, having survived that experience, really were looking for a kind of material and kind of object that could express that kind of loss.”

Sheumaker, author of “Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hair Work in America,” did her first research at the country’s largest hair museum in Independence, Mo.

The museum belongs to Leila Cohoon, a retired hairdresser. Cohoon has more than 2,000 items in her collection, some of which she brought to the library.

Cohoon said the oldest piece in her museum is a brooch labeled 1680, but she has met people who have traced the art form to the 12th century.