Friday, January 13, 2012

To Make A Hair Wreath

Once a Victorian woman had carefully--sometimes obsessively--collected the hair she needed to finish her hair wreath, what was her next step? Turning to the "how-to" books of the time, most of today's readers would have been frustrated by the lack of detail. 

Take, for example, the 1859 book Art Recreations: Being a Complete Guide. The authors, Levina B. Urbino & Professor Henry Day, present their instruction for creating the different flowers of a hair wreath in ridiculously vague terms. To make a daisy or aster, the hair wreath maker was told to "turn this looped wire round and round to present a flat surface; make firm by fine wire underneath." Other than that, they provide no specific instruction. Instead, they tell the reader that "It is well to have a pattern. If you can not see hair flowers, take natural ones, and by fastening strands of hair to a wire, and binding with floss, endeavor to imitate Nature". Basically, Urbino & Day pawn the reader off onto finding a hair wreath--or a person--from which they can copy. 

The title page of Urbino & Day's book Art Recreations. The book instructs the reader in a variety of fancy work skills, such as drawing, painting, papier mache, leather work and even taxidermy! The entire book is free to read & search on Google--just click here.
In fact, that's probably how most women learned how to make hair wreaths in the first place--not from magazines like Godey's Lady's Book or Harper's Magazine or books like Urbino & Day's --but other women. Like many other fancy work skills, like sewing, painting or embroidery, being able to create a hair wreath was a skill passed from woman to woman. Strangely, because the hair wreath craze really only lasted for 30 years (from 1850 to 1880), knowledge of creating hair wreaths did not cross many generations. Rather, women of the time probably learned how to make these unique creations from their contemporaries--friends, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Because hair wreaths became so unpopular so quickly, it is unlikely mothers were teaching the passé skill to their daughters after 1900. Indeed, the dearth of hair wreaths from post-1900 supports this idea. 

Hair wreath created by the women of Hope, Maine during the 1860s--now on display at the Hope Historical Society House. Image is from their website
Though we addressed some issues of collecting hair to create a hair wreath in the last post, there are a couple more things to note. Once hair was gathered--be it from a living person or a dead one--it could be saved for later by sealing it in paper with wax melted over a flame. Though accounts differ, this may be what poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's second wife, Frances Appleton, was doing when her dress caught fire in July 1861. Longfellow tried to put her out, but her burns were too severe and she died the next morning. Longfellow himself received burns on his face so serious that he could no longer shave, and thus grew the beard for which he is so recognizable today. 

Another neat tidbit about hair wreaths? Brown was the most popular hair color! As explained by Alexanna Speight in her 1871 book about hair work, The Lock of Hair:
 We certainly thought golden reigns supreme, but it would appear not to be so. Among the better classes of English people, however, brown is said to be the prevailing color; but then our population is made up of some many races that we have all sorts of hair.
Speight goes on to explain that it all has to do with being marriageable--red heads, blondes and those with light brown hair did not marry as often as those with dark brown or black hair did! Though her statistics are certainly questionably, there is certainly no shortage of brown hair in the hair wreaths we find today!

Bell, C. Jeanenne. Collector's Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Indentification & Values. Paducah, Kentucky: Collector Books, 1998. 
Hope Historical Society website.  
McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord. New York: Grove Press, 2005.
Speight, Alexanna.  The Lock of Hair. 1871.
Urbino, L.B. & Henry Day. Art Recreations: Being A Complete Guide. Boston: S.W. Tilton & Co., 1859.

1 comment:

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