Hair Wreaths: A Nineteenth-Century Mormon Treasure, Part One

By September 19, 2012

DUP: Cornelia Harriet Hales Horne Clayton

Your initial reaction may be one of disgust (one naturally thinks of hairballs!) or disdain (how often did they wash their hair anyway?). Intricate designs of human hair, fastidiously fashioned into flowers, trees, and abstract designs, came to represent a Victorian ideal of nostalgia, elaborate texture, and ostentatious ornamentation in the memory of ancient human relics of the Saints.


DUP Eliza Wilson Cleghorn

Nineteenth-century Mormons were not one step behind their American counterparts. Women as well as men worked actively to imitate popular patterns, using tools advertised in Eastern magazines, presenting their work to revered family members and church leaders, and decorating their homes and even their holy temples with hair art. Fuzzy hair balls continue to hang in various DUP museums throughout Utah as a relic of the past.


DUP Hannah Stevens Marks

I am proud to present the first of four posts on Mormon hair wreaths. The first, today, will discuss the historical value of the format, explaining the meaning and the various popular practices. The following three posts in my series will look at specific Mormon hair wreaths and explore their meaning as significant pieces of material culture. One hung in the Manti Temple and now belongs to the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, another hung in the Salt Lake Temple and belongs to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum, and the last was found in the vault of the Relief Society Building.


DUP William Wagstaff watch chain

According to historian Geoffrey Batchen, hair is a type of synecdoche or a memorial symbol: ?Hair, intimate and yet easily removed, is a convenient and pliable stand-in for the body of the missing, memorialized subject.? He continued: ?The hair serves a metonymic memorial function, standing in, as I have noted, for the body of the absent subject.?[1] Once detached from the body, hair continued to stand for that individual as a physical marker.[2] While hair on a living person changes color and texture over time, cutting and saving locks was a common way to mark the passage from infancy to old age, preserving a specific moment of time much like a photograph.[3] People often preserved clips of hair from a baby?s first hair cut, to the locks of a romantic interest, to cutting a piece at a dear one?s death. Locks of George Washington appear all over the place; therefore it does not seem weird that early Mormons saved Joseph Smith?s hair. This physical connection to their prophet revealed their testimony of him and a personal relationship with the great man.


DUP Susannah Fullmer Snyder flower sprays

In many religious beliefs, hair is considered sacred. Several biblical references connect hair with purity.[4] Others link the number of hairs on the head with a loving God who seeks to restore all things physical and spiritual.[5] Orthodox Jewish women covered their hair with wigs or scarves. While contemporary Mormon women have not (thankfully) continued this tradition, efforts at perfectly coiffed hair continue in Mormon cultural practices as popular haircuts appear throughout Mormon cultural regions.


DUP Sarah Elizabeth Perry Stratton

Artifacts made of human hair, including pictures, rings, necklaces, brooches, pins, earrings, and wreaths, popularized in Scandinavia, France, Germany, and England in the late eighteenth century and later in the rest of Europe and the United States.[6] Perhaps the high Scandinavian population in Sanpete County influenced the inclusion of a hair wreath in the Manti Temple. According to historian Stuart Blersch, expanded leisure time for the middle class during the Industrial Age, produced a Victorian fascination with handcrafts. [7] Infatuation with death and mourning, stemming from classical antiquity with the ideology of Memento Mori, (literally, ?remember you must die?), supported the rise in popularity of mourning jewelry and the inclusion of hair work, carrying physical reminders of mortality.[8] By the mid-1800s, mass production of hair jewelry in America increased in popularity, heightening in the 1840s and 1850s. While originally created by professionals, soon amateurs and many women in the middle class picked up the practice, with designs printed in Godey?s Ladies Book and Peterson?s magazines.[9]


DUP Martha Mellon Howells

Hair proved to be a very workable material. According to Victorian historian Frances Lichten, ?because of its lightness, toughness, and pliability, hair could be fashioned into the most intricate of braided and woven devices.?[10] Hair was first washed with water and baking soda or borax, then hung to dry. Divided into bunches of strands, each bunch was knotted with a small weight tied together with pack thread. The ends of the hair were gummed together with a mixture of wax and shellac and melted together. The hair was then sewn or woven into jewelry or manipulated into pictures.[11] Designs were made with a cut-and-paste technique developed in the eighteenth century. Strands of hair were laid on gossamer paper, then simultaneously separated and glued with a palette-type instrument or a camel-hair knife. This hair was then air-dried and cut into any shape or design desired. Popular motifs included flowers, plants, trees, birds, butterflies, and bees. Other jewelry projects required hair weaving, similar to the process of making bobbin lace. Hair was arranged in bundles on a circular table with hooks, loops, and weights. Sometimes the hair was placed on a small curling iron, then held over a candle to heat it into shape without burning the hair.[12]


DUP Lusannah Emeline Goodridge Hovey

Thus hair proved to be a resourceful, usable medium for Mormon settlers in Utah. Hair was much more accessible than fabric, even, as women simply saved up the hair left in their brushes. Hair connected women and men to their families as well as their social groups, indicating much about their relationships. Hair art, then, tells about the makers and the communities they worked to preserve.


DUP hair receiver

Hair was then constructed into jewelry, placed in lockets, and even collected like signatures in friendship albums. Hair wreaths ranged anywhere from one to four feet in diameter and were often framed in shadow boxes to hold their three-dimensional forms. Because of their ornate quality, hair wreaths were often prominently displayed in parlors.[13] Historian Josh Probert believed that the placement of hair wreaths in LDS temples, either in the Celestial room or the hallway just outside, revealed valuable information about temple ideology. ?The celestial room is, after all, an oversized Victorian parlor. It looks much like what the Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts were building at the same time on the East Coast. To have a hair work piece hanging in a Victorian home made sense in terms of interior design.?[14]


Common themes to look forward to: hair art as an example of LDS belief in resurrection; the melding of the hair of family and friends as a community or church family tree; and the display of hair art as material culture of female religious authority.

[1] Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 65.

[2] Helen Sheumaker, Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 27.

[3] Marcia Pointon, ?These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins,? in The Story of Time, ed. Kristen Lippincott (London: Merrell Holberton and National Maritime Museum, 1999), 200.

[4] Under the Levitical law, men were required to shave off all the hair on their head as part of the purification process, including their beard and eyebrows (Lev. 14:19). Isaiah cursed the daughters of Zion for the excessive attention they placed on their hair (Isaiah 3:24). 1 Corinthians 11:15??if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.? Mary washed the feet of Jesus with her hair in an intimate act of adoration. See Luke 7:33; John 12:3.

[5] Verses describing the resurrection included the promise that ?not a hair of your head shall perish? (Luke 21:18), that ?even the very hairs of your head are all numbered? (Luke 12:7; see also D&C 29:25; 9:14; 84:80, 116), and that the soul and the body shall be restored to their proper form (Alma 40:23).

[6] A wig-makers? guild in Sweden organized in the early eighteenth century and controlled the market of hair art in the region for some time. Ruth Gordon, ?Victorian Hairwork,? Piecework 4, no. 2 (April 1996): 36.

[7] Stuart Blersch, ?Victorian Jewelry Made of Hair,? Nineteenth Century 6, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 42.

[8] C. Jeanenne Bell, Collector?s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry: Identification and Values (Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1998), 8.

[9] Michael J. Bernstein, ?Hair Jewelry, Locks of Love,? Smithsonian 6, no. 12 (March 1976): 97.

[10] Frances Lichten, Decorative Art of Victoria?s Era (New York: Charles Scribner, 1950), 192.

[11] Bernstein, ?Hair Jewelry, Locks of Love,? 98?99.

[12] Irene Guggenheim Navarro, ?Hairwork of the Nineteenth Century,? Antiques 159, no. 3 (March 2001): 489; Blersch, ?Victorian Jewelry Made of Hair,? 43.

[13] Sheumaker, Love Entwined, 77.

[14] Josh E. Probert, ?Mormon Hair Art as Relic,? in Growth and Gateways: Mormonism in a Wider World. Material Culture Studies and Mormon History (presented at the Mormon History Association, Sacramento, 2008), 3.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Gender Material Culture Memory Popular Culture Women's History


  1. Are there any artisans currently who still make hair wreaths? Thanks for the great post.

    Comment by smb — September 19, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

  2. Awesome, Jenny. I love it, even if I’m still a bit creeped out.

    Comment by Christopher — September 19, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

  3. Wow, what a fascinating subject, Jenny. I’m curious about the hair receiver you’ve included as your last photo: what was its function? To store the hair of a loved one, or to gather it in preparation for handicrafts, or some other purpose?

    Comment by Nate R. — September 19, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

  4. Thanks! I’m looking forward to the rest of the posts. I remember Josh’s presentation. It was great, and definately memorable. My favorite hair objects are thr lockets put under glass at the top of at least one of the JS coffin canes.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 19, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

  5. So… we have a large hair tiara at U of M made from the hair of several generations of women. The question that everyone asks is: Where would you wear this? At what function, do you say you know I think the hair tiara would be perfect? So that’s my question for you, Jenny. What’s the function at which you wear a hair tiara or are they purely decorative.

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 19, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

  6. Great post, Jenny. I can’t stop looking at the pictures. I’m trying to think of some sort of modern equivalent…any ideas?

    Comment by J Stuart — September 19, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

  7. Reduce, reuse, recycle! Also, I second Amanda’s question about the proper occasion for sporting a hair tiara. Please advise.

    Comment by jmh — September 19, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  8. Interesting. I had always pictured hair art as an American Victorian thing, and now I am going to have to see if the Dutch practiced hair art (it seems perfect for them because of the low cost material). Looking forward to the other installments.

    Comment by Saskia — September 20, 2012 @ 12:46 am

  9. Brilliant, Jenny. Though I fear that after this series, everything else on JI will be anti-climactic.

    And I hope you tell your story on how you found the wreath in the RS vault.

    Comment by Ben P — September 20, 2012 @ 6:18 am

  10. If only I didn’t have such a hyper-active gag reflex….fantastic. Can’t wait for more…context. 🙂

    Comment by JanieceJ — September 20, 2012 @ 6:26 am

  11. Amazing. What would Laurel say?

    Comment by Max — September 20, 2012 @ 8:50 am

  12. This is great, Jenny. I remember first seeing a hair wreath on display in the Beehive House and thinking it was rather odd. I have a question about how memorialization and commercialization worked together. I understand why someone would want to keep the hair of a relative, friend, or maybe a famous person as a mnemonic device–to aid in the remembrance of the “absent body”–but when people purchased hair art, did the identity of the hair’s “donor” travel with the object? Did manufacturers use hair from ordinary donors, or did they specifically seek out famous people’s hair, in order to market the art?

    Comment by David G. — September 20, 2012 @ 9:01 am

  13. Thanks for this, Jenny. (Though I must second Christopher’s “creeped out” feeling.)

    Am I right in understanding that, while many Victorian Americans engaged in handiwork with hair, these Mormon hair wreaths were more elaborate than what the average American would have been creating? In my own work, I came across at least one news story in the 1890s or 1900s in which someone who had worked as a guard at the Utah prison where many polygamists served sentences claimed to have an elaborate watch chain made of hair taken when Mormon men entering the prison were forced to cut off their beards. I’ve no doubt that such a thing was meant to emasculate Mormon men. But I’m now wondering if the creation of such an object (or the belief that it existed) didn’t also gain meaning as a mockery of the extent of Mormon hair work?

    Comment by Cristine — September 20, 2012 @ 10:14 am

  14. JR – In regards to Cristine’s comment, might that William Wagstaff piece above be the one mentioned in those news accounts? I know that Mormon aversion to crosses is not consistent, but from a google search Wagstaff was thought to be a miner, not a Mormon….I was wondering about the cross and the idea of mockery adds to the intrigue here.

    Comment by JanieceJ — September 20, 2012 @ 10:37 am

  15. This is a fascinating post, and I look forward to others in the series. I am wondering how popular the act of snipping and saving a child’s and loved one’s hair still is (if it is). I am wondering how hair was chosen for these wreaths. Was it saved after a hair cut or trim? This is making me thinking about our current rituals of saving hair (Locks of love, wig making) in a whole new way.

    Comment by NatalieR — September 20, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  16. Despite my gagging issues I keep thinking about this. Interestingly, there is also a report of someone who has a hair wreath made from hair of the victims of the massace. One of the ideas of how to track down those guilty and bring them to justice is by determining provenance of the wreath. I don’t know if there really was a wreath, it doesn’t seem like it, but this might be like that watch chain….

    Comment by JanieceJ — September 21, 2012 @ 11:33 am

  17. One thing that I keep thinking of, and perhaps you’ll be addressing it in future posts, is what class and social hierarchies have to do with this. These are public hair wreaths hung in popular places and as part of institutional groups. Choosing hair from specific people–and from what I remember, the wreaths you showed me where the “who’s who” of Relief Society in the 19th century–would seem a tangible representation of the social order during the period.

    Comment by Ben P — September 21, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  18. There are also a few at the Hutchings Museum in Lehi, fashioned by Deaf pioneer Mary Ann Minerva Davis (1828-1939). They allowed me to take photographs this past March, but with the glare from the frames and my lack of photography skills, they turned out sort of bupkis.

    Comment by AnnE — September 27, 2012 @ 10:09 am

  19. I just googled “victorian hair art” and was astounded by the images it returned. Wow. And then I learned that some people still practice this craft. Double wow.

    I’m surprised the hair color doesn’t fade after 150 years. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 27, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  20. I was thrilled to find this artcle especially because my Uruguayan great-grandfather used to make hair jewelry in the early 20th century.

    Comment by Antônio Trevisan Teixeira — September 30, 2012 @ 3:34 pm


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