Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mementos of Affection at the Cincinnati Art Museum

~Illustration from Mark Campbell's book (1867)~

In 1867 in Chicago, Illinois, Mark Campbell, a self-proclaimed expert in the art of hair fancywork, published a comprehensive manual entitled Self-Instruction in the Art of Hair Works. The book’s publication was a necessary endeavor, he said, “in compliance with an almost universal demand, concluded to publish about which will clearly illustrate the Art of Hair Dressing, and the making of Hair Jewelry and Hair Work of every description.” Campbell claimed that his instruction manual on the art of hair fancywork was the only book of its kind, disclosing the long-held secrets of the industry, which would make his book “an indispensable adjunct to every lady’s toilet table” as she learned to expertly dress her own hair without the expense of a professional. Furthermore, he said, those wishing to preserve and wear lasting mementos of love from the hair of the living or deceased would know without question that the hair art created and secured in a locket at their breast was the actual hair of the loved one.[1] In fact, Mark Campbell had discovered an additional way, through publication, to capitalize on the culture of sentimentality and commemoration deeply ingrained in American and European societies. While hair fancywork emerged in the mid-17th century, it was not until the late-18th century that it quickly become a popular form of personal expression and individualism, this juxtaposed to the Industrial Age and its cheap, mass produced goods.

~From Menge's style and price catalog (1874)~
Initially, hair work provided only a decorative backing to painted portrait miniatures as a tangible, yet private reminder, of one’s adoration or grief for the beloved.[2] However, from the early Regency to the late Victorian eras, the art and exposition of hair fancywork was in its zenith, and wisps and waves of hair were everywhere, not only preserved between the pages of personal diaries and scrapbooks, but woven into elaborate parlor decorations and intricate jewelry, prominently displayed within the Victorian home and as personal ornamentation.[3] Indeed, jewelers like Charles T. Menge in New York City and Halford & Young in London, the very sort of proprietors who Campbell accused of accumulating a fortune from the sentiment of others, "and would still retain [their art] a profound secret but for his publication,” were well established in the hair fancywork trade, had published their own fancywork design books, and despite the publication of Campbell's book of self-instruction in the art, did not struggle for business. 

~Various symbols and their means in hairwork~
In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Kent State Museum of Fashion and view their Civil War Fashions & Domestic Life exhibit, which included beautiful decorative pieces of intricate hair art woven into wall portraits, from family trees to framed flowers – they were extraordinary. This past November, the Cincinnati Art Museum featured an exhibit entitled Mementos of Affection: Ornamental Hairwork in Jewelry and Portrait Miniatures. The items showcased in the exhibit are truly remarkable pieces of craftsmanship. What allowed me to understand the meaning and significance of the pieces on display was knowing what the symbols meant that adorned each piece. It is not enough to look at these exquisite works of art and see a pretty thing, then move on to the next. These mementos of affection disclose a secret world unknown to most of us today, expressed in the colors, gemstones, plant life, animals, and objects which detail a piece. For instance, if you should ever see an article of hairwork, whether jewelry or home decor, adorned with pearls, it is likely a mourning piece, “pearl” symbolizing tears. But not all hairwork centered on loss and grief…

~A Family Tree~
There is love. The presence of a garnet often symbolized deep affection and fidelity, or Cupid’s Arrow, which symbolized love and piety. Portrait miniatures with hair work were very often keepsakes of familial love, affection between friends, children, and parents. Watch fobs and rings were commonly woven from a lover’s hair, as well as necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. The Victorians seem to have a macabre sense of sentiment when we superficially regard their expressions of love and grief, but these manifestations of feeling are no different than the articles of love and grief which we observe today. For example, we may not have a brooch made from the hair of a loved one, but it is common today to see the bereaved wearing urn pendants or displaying artful paperweights that contain the ashes of a love one.

Below are a few of the sentimental treasures displayed in the exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Looking carefully at each, can you determine what sort of sentiment or commemoration is being expressed based on the objects detailed and their symbolic meaning?  

A Gentleman, c. 1974, watercolor, ivory, hair, copper, gold

Bracelet, c. 1845-1850, watercolor, hair, ivory, glass, gold

Bracelet, c. 1846, gold, hair, enamel, seed pearls, fabric, wood, glass (a)

Bracelet, c. 1846, gold, hair, enamel, seed pearls, fabric, wood, glass (b)

Bracelet, c. 1850-1870, gold and hair

Necklace, c. 1850-80, hair and gold (a)

Necklace, c. 1850-80, hair and gold (b)

Young Boy, c. 1790, watercolor, ivory, hair, seed pearls, gold

For a virtual tour of the Cincinnati Art Museum's Mementos of Affection: Ornamental Hairwork in Jewelry and Portrait Miniatures, please click here. To view or download a copy of Mark Campbell's 1867 instruction manual for hair fancywork, please visit the Internet Archive by clicking here

Happy Spring and blessings and happy sewing!

[1] Campbell, Mark. Self-Instruction in the Art of Hair Works, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description (New York, 1867), Preface.

[2] Shuemaker, Helen. “’This Lock You See’: Nineteenth Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self,” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 1:4 (1997), 423.

[3] Ibid, 422.

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