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History

May 20, 2012

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Some history wreathed in hair

TERRE HAUTE — From the unfortunate occurrence of Prince Albert’s death in 1861 came the social mores of proper mourning practices and accoutrements witnessed and endorsed by the admirers of Queen Victoria in her reign-long state of grieving. The propensity and outright requirement of widows of the Victorian Era to don black dresses and year-long weeping veils became earnest practices. While the art of hair weaving certainly had its beginning centuries before, the period saw a flourishing of the art. The Paris Exposition in 1855 boasted a life-sized portrait of Queen Victoria comprised entirely of human hair.

To compensate for a rather strict dress code (Victorians are well-publicized for their balance of prudishness and macabre sensibilities), mourning jewelry made of hair and braided into fine, filigree-like designs were deemed appropriate attire for those in prolonged states of grieving. These also provided an intimate relic or bond with loved ones living or deceased. Shadow-boxed hair wreaths, like the one displayed in the Museum’s upper-level, Victorian parlor, were commonly oriented in an upright horseshoe pattern to allow for a family’s growth through the years as members’ hair was collected and added to the design. The Museum’s example includes what appears to be a silk cross upon which a hair-woven rose is placed. It was created by Alma Louisa Denny and donated to the museum by her niece, Bertha Phillips Reeder. Clearly Reeder appreciated her aunt’s painstaking effort and was kind enough to share with us. Whether this was in remembrance of a family member is uncertain, but the dedication many of the artists used in creating these intricate pieces was due in part to the close bond with the loved ones memorialized. Many chose to learn and continue the practice rather than outsource the creation to service-providers for fear that bulk hair, not the hair of their loved ones, would be used.

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