Remembering the dead with the hair from their heads

Tamara Browning

Ken Morris collects dead people’s hair.

But not just any hair. The owner of K.M. Hair Works and Spa in Springfield, Ill., Morris about six years ago began collecting mementos of mourning — such as a wreath, watch fob, ring or bracelet — fashioned from the hair of people who have passed on.

The practice was most popular from 1840 to 1870, although it was done as late as the early 1900s.

“When someone would die, they didn’t have photography, so they would take and cut hair off of the dead person and make something from it to remember them by,” Morris says.

Framed and displayed on his business’ walls, some of the more than 60 items are made with hair plaited so elaborately that one would never know that they’re composed of (gulp) dead people’s hair strands.

“Hair is protein, and it will last. It doesn’t dissolve. Just like if you were to dig up a buried body, the fingernails and the hair would still be left there.”

Most mourning hair work displayed at K.M. Hair Works and Spa is from brunettes.

“In that day and age, people didn’t live very long, so they didn’t have many people who had ... gray hair. You’ll see blond once in a while or lighter brown,” Morris says.

Nearly all of the mourning items Morris buys come from eBay.

“I started collecting blow dryers and curling irons as just something to remember my trade by. ... I started going to antique malls and collecting those. I probably have 20 hair dryers that all come from the ’40s and ’50s,” Morris says.

“One day, when I was on eBay, I found this item called ‘mourning hair.’ I just clicked onto it, and ever since then, I’ve been buying it.”

Documenting mourning

Although Morris is a relative newcomer to collecting mourning hair items, the art of mourning mementos isn’t new.

First used as a remembrance and later as proper fashion etiquette, mourning jewelry, or memorial jewelry, has been used since ancient times.

Pre-literate societies wore mourning mementos made of the bones, skull, teeth or hair of the deceased.

In Roman and medieval times, mementos were fashioned using a motif and an inscription such as “In memory of ...” according to “What is Mourning Jewelry?” by Barb Musselman (www.musselmanfuneral. com).

The Victorian era, with its roots in sentimentality, inspired new heights in the development of hair as an ornamental and coveted substance, according to “The Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment with Catalog of Hair Jewelry,” by Mark Campbell (edited by Jules and Kaethe Kliot).

Mourning jewelry served three basic functions, Musselman says:

  • As a souvenir of the deceased to be worn in remembrance
  • As a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death
  • As a status symbol and conveyor of economic status. For example, the more memorial rings distributed at a funeral, the wealthier the deceased.

Art of hair work

The production of mourning jewelry became a lucrative business in the 19th century.

Hair from the deceased was among the most common material used to fashion mourning jewelry, Musselman says. By the mid-19th century, hair was used to make entire pieces of jewelry.

Making hair jewelry and hair work of “every description” was a skill that demanded that author Mark Campbell publish “The Art of Hair Work” in 1875 for “all classes” to give them detailed instructions and patterns, such as for the chain braid, ring braid, bracelet braid and more.

“Persons wishing to preserve, and weave into lasting mementoes, the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother or child can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their own handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone,’ ” Campbell writes.

Tools and materials needed for hair work include:

  • fine wire in copper, gold and silver
  • bobbins to hold the working strands in tension
  • a stand to support the work and maintain the position of the working strands
  • molds to control the shape of the hollow braids
  • a counterbalance to keep the work in place.

Of course, hair also is required. And one would think it would be hair from a dead person. But Morris has thought of at least one caveat — maybe it could be hair from a living person.

Morris remembers his grandmother taking her long hair out of braids at bedtime and brushing it, cleaning the brush out and sticking the hair strands in a hair receiver.

“That would enable her to save that hair, and then she would do things with it — make pillows out of her own hair,” Morris says.

“I’m wondering if maybe that wasn’t the way that some of that hair was retrieved was from people brushing their hair.”

Saving mourning hair mementos

Hair had more uses than in mourning jewelry.

As mementos of the deceased as well as symbols of love and friendship, hair was placed in lockets, made into floral forms and braided for keepsakes of both the living and dead, according to “The Art of Hair Work”: “Elaborate wreaths were formed from these forms and set in deep frames as remembrances.”

The first piece Morris bought was a mourning hair wreath that is more than 100 years old.

“I thought this was just amazing. I bought it for $40,” says Morris, who collects mostly wreaths. “It didn’t come with a frame, so I bought the shadow box. But when you look at it, you can see all the wire is exposed.

“So what seemed unique and amazing to me the first time I bought one, now that I have bought a few pieces, I realize I got taken.”

If someone were to click online onto “mourning” on eBay, there may be a couple hundred pieces online, Morris says.

“But out of those 200 pieces, there’s only going to be three or four wreaths because, number one, they’re expensive, but, number two, who … would want them on their walls for one thing other than a hairdresser?” Morris says.

Morris’ wife, Nancy, doesn’t mind him buying mourning hair items.

“She just doesn’t want me to bring it home,” Morris says. “It just doesn’t go with our decor, for one thing.”

Tamara Browning can be reached at 217-788-1534.