In Latin, Memento Mori means, "Remember, you must die." But here in America, we took it to mean, a memento of death.
For most, death is a painful event that no one is immune to and more often than not, we choose to keep a memory of the lost loved one. There are many, but this episode focuses more on hair jewelry.
S1E4: Memento Mori
Bag of Bones Podcast
The act of giving a lock of one’s hair to a loved one has been practiced for centuries. It was was a sign that you were “courting” or “engaged” if you kept a locket of your mate’s hair hair. Men carried it with them in watch fobs or sewn into the inside lapels of their jackets. Women wore brooches or lockets with snippets of hair from their loves.
It was common for the family Bibles to have snippets of hair on name cards for the members of the family in their family tree.
And even into the 1900s as tokens of friendship, ladies would exchange clippings to include in their autograph books.
And before you cringe at the thought of saving hair, I’d be willing to bet your parents have a clipping from your first haircut tucked away someplace safe… and- chances are, you probably did the same with your children. (Don’t worry, we’re not even tapping into the saving of teeth for this episode!)
Needless to say, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that lockets of hair being used as mementos from those loved ones who had passed before us, is not too outrageous. Even an art form.
Memento Mori, is translated to simply be, memories of the dead.
When a loved one dies, it’s not uncommon for us to keep some sort of memento to remember them by. Items, like china, rings, tools and clothing were passed on from generation to generation to keep the family’s history “alive” for lack of a better word, and as a sentimental reminder of our love for them. Many of those same items are passed on still today.
But, at a time before the photograph, and all they had were their memories, Memento Mori was not considered morbid in any way. It was honoring those who passed. It was like our keeping a photo on our wall, long after our loved ones had passed.
You’ve gathered that today’s episode is referring to the sentimental value that we have given to the locks of hair that we keep, but perhaps not in the how. In addition to keeping small snippets tied with a delicate bow or pressed between pages of a family’s Bible, some learned the talent of turning hair into pieces of jewelry or elaborate framed works of art.
This skill morphed into a recognized art form that was once very personal, being done by the grieving family member, to a highly profitable business, then back to a more intimate setting such as a social gathering like sewing bees and then by the time WW1 came along it switched into morbid curiosities.
Jewelry made from human hair. Such an odd thing to our sensibilities today. Almost cringe-worthy.
But stick with me a little bit longer and hopefully you’ll be able to remove the look of disgust from your face. (I know it’s there, because I made that face too). It altered into a look o respect for the craft and a reverence for the pieces.
In our world today where we take so much for granted and believe that most things are disposable, it’s hard to suspend those thoughts and re-visit that time since not only do we have millions of photos of our loved ones, and what they eat at any given time, to a time where if you HAD a photo… it was the most precious thing. Because it was rare.
Death was treated so differently in times gone by. There were specific rituals that those who lost someone followed for the specific amount of time depending on what the deceased meant to you. Death was not only an event, but since it may have been months or even years before family members and friends learned of the death, the rituals were maintained for a rather lengthly amount of time.
Men who lost their wife were to wear black clothing for three months and then to wear a black arm bandage, corsage or pin representing her death. The women however had to mourn and wear black dress, corset, gloves, hat and veil for two and a half years. They even had to correspond on mourning stationary. Yes, there was such a thing.
Death, was a thing. So it was not too hard to see how jewelry ended up a part of that as well.
Matte Black Ornamental rings and brooches made of jet and onyx were already used in mourning wear and adding the sentiment of a loved ones hair was a perfectly beautiful and natural thing. They could keep their loved ones with them always.
The manipulation of hair dates back centuries. The Europeans and Greeks worshipped it and the longer the locks, the more beautiful and sacred it was deemed The Egyptians, on the other hand, hated it, choosing to shave it off and wear wigs when the event called for it.
So, in true supply and demand fashion, there were those who emerged who mastered the skill of wig making and then in addition to adorning and style, they perfected their skill with hair wiglets, chignons, falls and curls.
And yes, these were mostly made with human hair. They had not developed synthetic as yet (well, not anything good- there were some horsehair, yak and fibers options…) but hair was quite the commodity. And, I’m sorry to tell you- it still is.
(Side note to put things into perspective of the time frame: by the 1850s over 150,000 pounds was being imported from Europe. Mainly France, Italy and Germany)
Human hair was a highly profitable market to get into. And this included jewelry. Watches, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, rings were in high demand.
By the mid to late 1800s jewelry stores would have their own “in house” hair weavers”. Customers could come in and purchase a ready-made item or bring in the hair of their loved one to have a custom piece made.
Mark Campbell remarked in his book from 1867 Self-Instructor in the Art of Hairwork, quote: “The Norwegians were among the first to make ornaments of hair to be worn as jewelry but in a great measure, we are indebted to the French for the perfection to which the art has attained.” End quote.
Again, Momento Mori was not considered morbid even though many displayed the very symbols we consider frightening, or unloving, or these days, faddish and grungy: such as skulls, coffins, wings, urns, skulls with wings and others but then, these symbols just meant the passing of time. A pause in our connection with the deceased.
It defined the piece for what it was, a symbol… a memory of death. To remind us that death is ever present and that we should embrace and strive for a righteous life. I believe in today’s vernacular it could be summed up with our saying, “Live life to the fullest.”
Just because a piece of jewelry from the past was black, did not always mean that it was Memento Mori. The artisans that created these ornamental pieces used a lot of symbolism in their creations. Not just the skulls and other creepy notations, but some that might surprise you.
The acorn or oak sprays are included to show independence and is often shown an empty acorn cup.
The use of ivory as a cutout piece or backdrop symbolized innocence and is seen often in the use of children’s and young women’s ornaments.
Seed pearls are meant to represent tears.
Lily of the Valley, the little bell-shaped flower has been known to symbolize sadness and the reuniting loved ones as well as the small bells announce their arrival to “good spirits”
Weeping Willow trees are popular in the hair jewelry institution (as someone with an artist’s eye myself I can see how hair could be a perfect form for this tree) but in death it means being born again; the resurrection of the soul
Today, the anchor symbolizes strength and security; a place to come home to; But in the 1800s, Anchors were used to signify hope and stability.
And one more that might seem obvious, The cross. Today, it is a symbol of the Christian faith that is recognized as salvation… atonement… redemption. And while it meant those same things in earlier times, when referring to death it also means- the acceptance of death. An end to suffering and sacrifice. Peace.
The skills of a Hairwork artisan can still be admired today, partially because of the medium with which they were working and the time and care they put into the creation of each piece.
Another quote from author Mark Campbell, says, “The jewelry manufactured in this time is as durable as the all-gold jewelry and is done in a style of surpassing neatness, thus rendering it beautiful either as an ornament or memento.”
And he is correct. Some pieces of Memento Mori are still as smooth and beautiful even being over 200 years old.
Long strands of hair were woven and twisted into bows that would be decorated with a pin. Necklaces that would be intricately braided in several designs and worn as is or have an additional piece of an anchor, cross or flower dangling from them. Watch fobs, bracelets, earrings, hat pins, and then to ornate wall hangings. Hours of painstaking work.
This style or braiding, and twisting was called “table work”, because artist would sit at a small, specially made table with strands of hair spilling over the edges weighted with just the right bobbin to keep the hair straight but not stretch it. The work space itself, was made of a domed shaped table that could spin to make it easier to reach all the way around for the weaver. They could sit or stand and braid their cord as long as they needed it to be and then tie it off, shellac the ends and adorn it with gold clasps.
Palette work was the skill of creating mailable “sheets” of hair to swirl and curl. They achieved this by flattening the hair and mixing it with sticky sap-like substance so when it dried it could be formed into shapes and sculpted. These creations are usually seen on the coverings for keepsake boxes (about the size of small jewelry boxes, for example), larger brooches and for shadow boxes, meaning framed under either domed or flat glass.
Wreaths and laurel designs were made of twisting, knotting and looping hair around wire until they created the length of the circle or half circle they desired. Then by off-shoots of wire and looped hair, twisting into the main strand made it look like branches of a tree or flower. The artist could add small dried flowers or wood or rolled paper or even create the flowers themselves from hair as well. It’s an amazing thing to see. I’ve added a few photos to the shownotes and it’s worth it to go to the website and really appreciate the time that had to go into creating even one element of these!
Then, families could hang them on their wall, either behind glass and framed or many opted to hang them directly and then the wreaths could be linked together as new family members were uh…unvolentarily added. This tedious, and time consuming style of hairwork is called gimping or gimp work.
Dissolved work. I bet you can guess what kind of artistry this is created from. The crafter would pulverize the hair pieces into a pigment and mix it with a substance that would allow it to “stain” or adhere to the backdrop, which was usually ivory. They would then have the freedom to paint whatever scene with ease. Sometimes, this was the only option for those who had short or course hair.
And then if the artist was really showing off, they would combine the skills of gimp work, palette work AND Dissolved Hairwork to create shadow boxes with scenes of death or gardens using the hair to create flowers, and weeping willow trees on a creamy white back drop of ivory or soft velvety fabric.
The jewelry began it’s rise in popularity in the early 1800s but when Queen Victoria was mourning the loss of her king Albert, and order eight pieces of jewelry to be made from his hair, the popularity boomed.
This was also the beginning of the Civil War, here in the states. The rituals and customs surrounding death had to be altered simply because of the mass amount of death that was happening daily. One in four soldiers died and death was at their doorstep every day.
This was the time when “store-bought” items rose in popularity. Mourning clothes and dresses, became the first “off the rack” items found in shops…
The war also affected the hair jewelry industry in many ways. This was the rise of store bought pieces with the family trusting a retail establishment to create their jewelry but then, death happened so often and so quickly, the artists were soon pressed for time and were unable to add much of the adornment that they used to. The first thing to go was shaving off the time it took to carve: “In memory of…” or any other inscriptions for that matter. Therefore, you can often tell the age of a piece of jewelry from the inscription… or the lack of one.
And that also caused the loved ones to wonder if the hair they sent off was really the hair that was used in the creation of their jewelry pieces.
In response… and concern, woman, began to learn the skill of hairwork themselves and it slowly replaced the artisans in the shops. The book referenced in the episode was released in 1861 and was a thorough instructional book on how to create braids, treat the hair and templates of what to create. It was titled Self-Instruction in the Art of Hairwork. It taught them everything they needed to know, so in some circles, this replaced quilting or knitting bringing it around full circle, back to the homes.
The women were needing things to do to help them heal and grieve and this gave them purpose, release and community. It was considered a very sentimental gift that was cherished by the family members and passed down from generation to generation.
It went out of fashion in the middle 1920s when it became deemed “frivolous”. At a time when the world was at war and every penny and ounce of effort had to go to supporting the efforts of victory, hair work became old fashioned and backward.
Luckily, there are still quite a few pieces to be found in various museums, especially the Civil War memorials. And, there is one woman who has made it her mission to preserve these precious pieces, so she created a museum just for these sentimental antiques. Leila’s Hair Museum. I’ll add the link to her website in the shownotes if you’d like to see her collection up close and personal.
And apparently enough time had passed when this mourning ritual had been all but forgotten to where when I mentioned it as an upcoming episode, I was greeted with, “Hair jewelry? That’s a thing? That’s disgusting!”
Even yet, today there are necklaces you can purchase so you can wear your deceased loved ones ashes around your neck or in a ring so maybe its not gone, just updated.