On display for the month of February is a 19th century watch chain made from human hair, originally from Eph Mercer’s store of Vermont, Illinois. Something made from human hair sounds strange to most people nowadays, but back in the Victorian era, it was very common to wear jewelry made from the hair of a loved one.
In 1977, the museum accessioned a group of items from the Eph Mercer store and this human hair watch chain was part of that collection. Mercer’s drugstore in Fulton County sold old-fashioned penny candy and was filled with his personal collection of antiques.
The original owner of the watch chain is not known, or how it ended up in Eph Mercer’s store. It is unfortunate that no information is known about this artifact leaving us to not full grasp the significance of the sentiment behind the object.
“Hair art”, sometimes called “hair work” or “hair jewelry” was immensely popular in the Victorian era. They were often made as tokens of love from hair exchanged between sweethearts, cherished friends, spouses or family members. Hair art could also be a type of a memorial. Known as mourning jewelry, it was made from the hair of someone deceased and worn by a surviving family member or loved one as a token of commemoration.
Creating hair work was a popular, mostly female, leisure pastime done at home, similar to knitting or lace making. Hair art was made at special braiding tables. Depending on the height of the table, work could be done sitting or standing. It was important that the tabletop was perfectly smooth, so it would not rip or tear the hair and damage the work.
Preparing the hair to be worked was critical. Hair needed to be boiled in soda water for around 15 minutes. The hair was then carefully dried, not near the fire, then sorted, and divided into strands of 20 or so hairs. Most pieces needed long hair. For example, a bracelet needed hair 20 to 24" long. Each strand would be knotted at the end. A piece of paper was pasted over the table giving the design for the pattern. Following instructions, strands of hair were carefully positioned on top of the table and woven back and forth following the pattern. Requiring painstaking attention to detail and patience, hair work was obviously a labor of love. Made into all sorts of items, from earrings, to bracelets, necklaces, watch chains, and brooches – hair art was limited only by the imagination of the maker.
Victorians were quite sentimental and expressed love and romance in many ways. This was the era when sending Valentine’s Day cards really became popular. Very common was the practice of including a snippet of hair as love token with your valentine. Some took the tradition further, creating a piece of hair art to give to a sweetheart.
The human hair watch chain on display is small, simple, and an intimate item for daily handling. Motivated by love and with sweet intentions, it was meant to be touched, probably many times a day, an almost constant reminder of someone. For those reasons, it might be a love token from someone living to another living loved one, instead of being made from the hair of someone deceased. There is no way to definitively determine whether the watch chain is a love token or that it possibly is a piece of mourning jewelry.
In the Victorian era, death touched everyone’s lives. Both men and women practiced mourning, wearing appropriate mourning clothes and mourning jewelry. The customs and traditions of mourning helped Victorians to handle their grief. Before the advent of popular photography, having a bit of a loved one’s hair was sometimes the only tangible way to have a keepsake of them. Hair jewelry was a way to keep a loved one’s memory with you. During Victorian times, hair jewelry was accepted mourning jewelry and was a source of comfort by providing a way to cherish a memory.
The height of popularity of hair art in America came during The Civil War. Before leaving home, a soldier might clip a lock of hair and give it to his sweetheart or family member as a keepsake. This snippet might be put into a locket or pin. Most soldiers killed in action were not sent home for burial, so hair was often cut from the deceased and mailed to the families as a memento, along with the deceased’s personal items. It was a common tradition to use this hair to make a piece of mourning jewelry. It may seem morbid to us now to wear something made from a dead person’s hair, but in this era, death was an everyday part of life.
"Godey's Lady's Book", a women’s 19th century magazine had numerous articles about hair work and hair jewelry. The following celebrates hair work and is an excerpt from 1860:
"Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now."
Watch chains were a popular fashion accessory throughout the 19th century. Wristwatches were not invented until around the beginning of WWI, so pocket watches were the norm and most pocket watches had watch chains.
To wear a pocket watch, a gentleman attached the watch to one end of the watch chain and attached the other end of the watch chain to his clothing. The museums’ watch chain has a shepherd’s hook at one end, this end was looped over a vest button, the button would be buttoned and the shepherd’s hook would be firmly secured by the button. When a gentleman removed the watch to look at the time, if it slipped, the watch would not fall, as the watch chain was fastened to his clothing. At the other end of the museum’s watch chain is a “lobster claw” clasp, the watch was clipped onto this clasp. The watch was then tucked inside the pocket of the vest.
Midway on the chain is a small metal attachment, to affix the “fob”, a small object to hang from the chain. The fob could be something useful like a small penknife or cigar cutter, or it could be something purely decorative like a small charm. The fob would dangle off the chain; it was a masculine fashion statement. For some, a handsome watch chain, pocket watch and fob ensemble might be their most valuable possession. Conspicuously visible, and proudly displayed, a watch/fob/watch chain was a man’s most prominent piece of adornment.
Most watch chains were made of either silver or gold. Having a human hair watch chain was a little unusual, but not completely out of the norm. There are many surviving examples preserved in museums.
From end to end, the human hair watch chain measures approx. 13 inches long. The piece of woven hair is about 10 inches and is made up of countless, individual strands of brunette hair.
Similar to knotting techniques used in macramé, the hair is braided in what appears to be two distinct styles, the “monk’s braid” knot, and then switches to the “spiral” knot. The hair work seamlessly forms a smooth, continuously woven patterned chain. Condition of the hair is excellent, still sleek and shining, regardless of being probably over 100 years old. Of sturdy construction, it has withstood many years of handling.
Knowing the love behind the making of this human hair watch chain changes it from a strange and weird object from the past, to a lovely token of remembrance that a museum visitor of today can appreciate for its original, symbolic heartfelt intention.
In many small ways, from small details, we can learn from the past. Those who came before us lived and loved in many of the same ways we do now. Luckily, a memento such as this watch chain survives, preserved in our museum, to remind us how very much like our ancestors we are.
Eassy by Heather Munro