Hairy Problems: Distance and the Personal in Research

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m completing a supernatural-themed YA novel. This week I was reworking some plot points and looked into hair jewelry as part of a subplot. Hair jewelry was a form of hair work, a popular and fashionable 19th century tradition that involved working human hair into jewelry and wreaths. In addition to weaving and braiding hair for jewelry, family members, lovers, and friends would often exchange locks of hair as an intimate, tangible token of their affection. These locks of hair might be saved in an album or secured within a brooch or ring.

Below is an image of a Union soldier in a locket, the chain is made from braided hair (1861-65), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Today we might call hair work gross and morbid, some articles that discuss hair jewelry like to emphasize the fact that hair jewelry and other hair work was made from the hair of dead people (ooh scary). And yes, hair work was often associated with funerary practices in the 19th century. Locks of hair from a deceased loved one could be worked into a hair wreath that would be mounted into a frame and displayed in the home as a memorial wreath; sometimes the hair would be combined with hair from other family members to make a family wreath. You can view an entire catalog of hair work designs through the Library of Congress website: Another common practice was using the hair to make jewelry that could be worn as a mourning piece.

Depending on what you research, you’re likely to stumble across something that you’ll find bizarre, disgusting, or distasteful. It’s easy to be shocked or repulsed by what you find, but at the risk of sounding cliché it’s essential to keep an open mind. Staying open to learn and understand doesn’t mean you have to agree with or condone the idea/practice/thing in question. Completely abandoning our own viewpoint and ideas isn’t always possible, nor is it advisable in some cases. But keeping an open mind in your research is more about imagining life from a different perspective. Einstein said that “imagination is the highest form of research,” and picturing that “strange” thing from the angle of the people who lived it is the only way you can try to understand how that idea or practice existed at all.

On one hand, research requires detachment. “Researcher” implies distance from the subject so that you can provide a supposedly objective analysis. But when you’re doing historical research (as well as research in other fields like anthropology), getting up close and personal is necessary to really understand the underlying motives and beliefs.

Hair Work behind frame (1850-60), Wisconsin Historical Museum. Photo Credit: Daderot

When trying to explain the popularity of hair jewelry and hair work, you should keep in mind the character of 19th century American popular culture. Hair work reflected the sentimentality and sincerity of this era; death was also a much more common experience. Items made the hair of a lost loved one was a tangible way to remember and stay connected to the person. Mark Campbell’s Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work (1867) provided detailed descriptions of different hair work techniques, his words in the preface sum it up:


Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos, 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 handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and again.’

As you continue to research, the gap between yourself and your subject lessens. You spend enough time with something you begin to feel like it’s a part of you—you understand it better and can examine it on its own terms.

References and More Information:

You can read more about hair work and hair jewelry here:

See more examples of hair jewelry (and even purchase some pieces):

And check out the entire manual on Campbell’s hair work:

Photo source–Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with saber and revolver in locket with chain of braided hair:


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