He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out a black onyx locket on a long chain of black faceted spinels and gold links, which he placed in her hand. ‘Open it.’ Inside, behind a glass window, was a curl of grey-blonde hair. ‘It’s Mercy’s. I asked the undertaker for it, then went to David Jones and Co. for the locket. You can tuck it under your bodice and no one will know it’s there but you.’ [‘Orphan Rock, Transit Lounge, March 2022]

Brooch Victorian era

Mercy’s funeral was too rushed for Julian to organise a piece of mourning jewellery more complex than a lock of Mercy’s hair set in a simple locket. But had there been time, I like to imagine him having a brooch made from Mercy’s hair, for Bessie to remember her mother.

Unusual brooch with hair from three people

Mourning jewellery made from the deceased loved one’s hair was a practice dating back as far as the 17th century, but reached its peak in the Victorian era. In the 17th century, the fashion was for plaited hair to be placed under crystal, accompanied by a memento mori – an object such as skull to act as a reminder of the inevitability of death. Over the decades, the memento mori lost its popularity, but not so the use of hair as a memorial to a loved one.

Bracelet of woven hair with miniature portrait

By the 18th century, these mementos were often accompanied by miniature portraits, usually painted in watercolour mixed with gum, and painted on ivory that had been roughened and degreased so that the paint would stick. The deceased hair would either frame the portrait, or be place at the reverse. At other times, tiny intricate scenes would be painted instead, and the finely chopped hair would become part of the scenery as trees, flowers or grass.

Earrings – all brown sections are hair

This style continued well into the 19th century until the advent of photography, when a photograph of the deceased replaced the miniature portrait. By the 19th century, the skulls and skeletons of the memento mori, which reminded the wearer of death and decay, were replaced by the urn, or women mourning in idyllic settings as symbols of love and sentimentality. Later, hair became not just a part of the jewellery, but often became all of it as various techniques of weaving hair were developed, enabling it to be more openly displayed.

Patterns for hairwork

Pattern books such as The jewellers’ book of patterns in hair work, suitable for mourning jewellery, brooches, rings, guards, alberts, necklets, lockets, bracelets, miniatures, studs, links, earrings, &c. &c. &c by William Halford & Charles Young [1864] showed the intricate designs available. Not only were there bracelets, brooches and earrings for women, but also rings, tie-pins and cufflinks for men. The New York Public Library Digital Collections also has examples of hairwork patterns.

Memorial tree with all foliage made of hair

Hairwork was a long, delicate and laborious process. The hair was first washed, then separated into bundles of five, ten or twenty hairs, then attached to small weights to straighten it. When dried it was wound around wire or pencils, or it was knitted, crocheted or braided, then wrapped around forms, after which it was boiled in a mixture of water and gum, then left to ‘set’ before being removed from the form. Another method was for hair to be glued flat on paper or fabric then cut to shape. So popular was this method of remembering a loved one that women used to cut family members’ hair during their lifetime, so as to have enough hair for a fitting memento when they died. But mourning hairwork was not confined to jewellery – hair wreath, trees whose foliage was made of hair, and pictures to hang on walls were also made to remember the deceased, and there were even shadow-boxes of family samplers.

Hairwork as a means of remembering a loved one became so popular that in 1850, the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book began to feature monthly instructions for hairwork and wrote:

Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting 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 a 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.’

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