Museum Mysteries: Hair Wreaths
Thousands of people drive by the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum every day without knowing what lies inside, even though admission to the museum is free. I drive by myself fairly often, and I figured that if people could get a preview of some of the interesting items featured there, they might visit the museum and discover something new. With this in mind, I began exploring some “museum mysteries” which I will share over the next few columns.
Just inside the door of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is something that looks like a coronet or a tiara, but it is neither. It is known as a hair wreath. Not a wreath worn in the hair, Greek style, but a wreath made out of actual human hair.
This hair wreath, made by Mrs. Harry Knight in around 1840, shows a wire frame on which thousands of human hairs are woven into flowers, leaves, and stems. The donors’ names are written on little labels around the outside: Lizzie, Adam, Laura, Mother, Ada, Kate, Father, Clara, and Henrietta.
Unlike the older custom of putting a lock of someone’s hair in a locket, the art of making a wreath or other decorative item out of hair started in the early 1800’s. Most of the time the wreath was made from locks of hair from a deceased person as a memento, but as the custom of hair wreaths became more widespread, people started making wreaths from their family’s hair, and as the fad gained momentum, they began making generational wreaths. In some of them, it is possible to see samples of all colors, even the blond of a new baby next to the silver of an elderly person. As the family gained or lost members, the older hair was moved toward the top of the design, while newer embellishments were added at the bottom, almost always in a horseshoe shape. Sometimes friends would exchange hair samples, and a lady always kept a collection box on the dressing table, to which she added her own hair as she brushed it out each night.
The hair was usually tatted, a lace-making technique, and wound around a wire and shaped into various forms according to the style of the piece. Known as a form of “fancy work,” women would undertake this craft just as they would sewing, knitting, or needlepoint.
Next to the simpler wreath is one much more elaborate, with layers of different designs and a bird in the center. This one was constructed by Mrs. H. H. Grafton, wife of the Manitou Springs Postmaster, in 1889 (Mr. Grafton, besides being Postmaster for 25 years, was also one of the founders of the State Teachers College). Like real horseshoes, these wreaths were hung with the opening up, because to display it any other way would let the luck run out. This wreath must have been added to for decades.
Modern museum visitors may look upon these wreaths with distaste, but in the nineteenth century, they were loving remembrances of cherished family members. They chronicled history the same way family trees do, but in a much more tangible way. Hair wreaths were a visual reminder of a person’s existence in the family’s life, long after that person had departed.
Who knows what other mysteries await inside the historic walls of the old El Paso County Courthouse, which now houses the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum? With free admission, there’s no reason not to go find out for yourself.
Other articles in the “Museum Mysteries” series: