The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 19, 2003


Wearing hair of the dead: a look at 19th-century mourning jewelry

Throughout the years people have remembered their loved ones in fascinating ways. Some traditions are today viewed as strange, but over a hundred years ago people remembered their deceased relatives by what became popular trends in Victorian life. One of the fashions of

Pieces of the town's collection of hair jewelry from Mary Amanda Marsh's company, housed by the Carlisle Historical Society. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

the 1800s was to take the hair of a deceased relative and wear it as jewelry. When we think of hair jewelry today, barrettes and hair elastics come to mind. Jewelry made of human hair may sound strange to people today, but for Americans in the 1860s it was another way to cherish a loved one's memory. Even more fascinating is the fact that a Carlisle woman ran her own business encouraging the practice.

A Carlisle resident, Mary Amanda Marsh, ran her own hair jewelry manufacturing company 132 years ago. In 1871, her company was established on Merrimack Street in Lowell. Mary Amanda Marsh's company would produce pieces of jewelry constructed from human hair as advertised on her business card:

Chaste designs of Jewelry,
Made of hair-assuredly,
Same as with the orders left,
Gold the finest; work the nicest;
Choice the style - of all the choicest,
Made by fingers deft.

Carlisle woman sets own style

Instead of taking the designs from current magazines, Mary Amanda Marsh prided herself on developing her own designs and making her own hair jewelry. She managed her hair jewelry manufacturing company for five years, then after a divorce remained in the house of her father, Dr. Austin Marsh.

In her lifetime Mary Amanda Marsh also was a correspondent for the Lowell Journal and Lowell Courier-Citizen. She also played the organ for both Unitarian and Congregational churches in addition to being a member of the Carlisle Ladies' Social Circle.

A fashion's European roots

The idea of using hair originated in Sweden, where, in the 1800s, women would braid and sell their hair to increase their incomes. Ladies would braid their hair and sell it to other towns, spreading the practice. Then in 1860s England, Queen Victoria grieved the death of Prince Albert. She decreed that the court could only wear mourning jewelry and appropriate dress for the next three years. This fashion soon spread to North America with the approach of
the Civil War.

Men going to fight in the Civil War would leave a lock of their hair behind as a possible memento for their families. Widows would take the hair and make it into earrings, watch chains, bracelets, crucifixes, and much more. What began as a way to remember dead loved ones developed into a fashion trend in America.

Designs using human hair were used to make a motif depending on the type of hair jewelry. There are four types: mourning jewelry, commemorative, decorative and sentimental. Designs included on broaches were fair landscapes, flowers, or cemetery scenes having such memorial motifs as coffins, birds, or weeping willows and urns. Jewels like pearls or diamonds symbolized tears, with the hair of the deceased under a piece of glass with their name and death dates on the back. Detailed scenes were made entirely out of hair, not always using hair of the deceased.

As the popularity of hair jewelry increased, women learned how to make hair jewelry on their own or send their requests to hair manufacturing companies. Thanks to early publications like Godey's Lady's Book, showing instruction articles and floral designs, women quickly learned how to take their hair and fashion hair jewelry. Taking the hair from a recently dead relative enabled people to remember them properly, which was an important tradition of Victorian life.

For those people who did not want to go to a manufacturing company, it was possible to make hair jewelry at home. A person would first boil the hair in soda water for fifteen minutes. After being sorted into lengths and divided into strands of about twenty to thirty hairs, the hairs would be wound onto many bobbins attached to a center mold. The hairs had weights attached to keep an exact height and to remain straight. This process would take hours to complete. Once the braiding was done, the hair and the mold would be removed and boiled for another fifteen minutes. The hair would then dry and taken from the mold, ready to wear.

A suspicion the public had of hair manufacturing companies was the belief that the companies did not use human hair but used horsehair which was much easier to come by and much more coarse and rough than human hair. Horsehair was used mainly for practice on the bobbins before dealing with regular human hair. Horsehair was also used to upholster couches and chairs; unfortunately as they aged, the hairs would stick up and collect on people's clothes, often proving painful for the sitter.

Admiring hair jewelry today

Now in the 21st century, hair jewelry has become collector's items. There are companies like Lovelylocks that will place a customer's hair inside a silver locket. Hair jewelry also survives in various historical societies, like the Carlisle Historical Society and the Bostonian Society.

The Carlisle Historical Society houses several pieces of the town's collection of Mary Amanda Marsh's hair jewelry. The objects include a pair of pearl earrings, a finely woven crucifix, and three simply woven bracelets. Upon close scrutiny it is possible to see the tiny ends of the hairs at the ends of the bracelets.

The Bostonian Society also has a collection of hair jewelry and other mourning objects of the Victorian period. And in a recent Bostonian Society newsletter article (2003: 2) by Sheree Brown, it was revealed that in Boston during the 1850s there existed more hair jewelry companies than there were horseshoers and gunsmiths.

For the curious person there are books like Jeanenne Bell's Collector's Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry, that explains the different types of hair jewelry and how to make it yourself, or a person can go to the Victorian Hairwork Society's web site, for articles and chat boards to learn more about the details of hair jewelry.

To remember Carlisle's own hair jewelry manufacturer, it is possible to visit Mary Amanda Marsh's grave by going to Green Cemetery and traveling past the chapel on the dirt road for 250 yards. She is remembered on a black marble monument.

Erin Johnson worked as an intern for the Carlisle Historical Society this summer. She currently attends Creighton University as a junior.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito