One of the most popular objects housed at the University of Texas at Austin’s archive the Harry Ransom Center is a nineteenth-century scrapbook of human hair. If you open the book, you can see some strands clipped from the heads of George Washington and Napoleon, the appropriately lush auburn tresses of the great Romantic poet John Keats, and a generous lock from Frankenstein’s authoress Mary Shelley all lovingly affixed to pages accompanied by portraits and sometimes even poems about the subjects’ coiffures.
If the thought of a hair collection gives you the willies or strikes you as a quaint practice from the past, don’t forget that in the last three years alone a single strand of Napoleon’s hair went up for auction and Justin Bieber’s hair clippings sold for 40,688 dollars on eBay. Apparently, we are just as fascinated by celebrity hair as our nineteenth-century forebears.
So what motivated John Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), a minor Romantic poet and essayist, to create this scrapbook featuring the hair of twenty one famed authors and statesman? The presence of some of the figures like Milton, Swift, and Napoleon indicate that Leigh Hunt included them for the same reason that people today read People magazine or prowl Ebay for Hollywood relics: we inherited our celebrity culture from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and collecting objects related to (or that used to be a part of) the icons we admire makes us feel close to them, like we possess some glimmer of their enchanted world.
On the other hand, the hair of figures like Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning—who were Leigh Hunt’s personal friends—point to more ordinary reasons for hair collecting that are still familiar to us today. In a time when photos was nonexistent or rare, it was a popular practice for friends, family, and couples to exchange locks of hair or painted miniatures. When loved ones passed away, their hair could be preserved in rings, lockets, or other jewelry as a way to cherish their memory, as Queen Victoria did when Prince Albert died in 1861.
If you haven’t recoiled but instead are intrigued by the hair collection…
- You can explore a digital copy of Leigh Hunt’s hair book on the Harry Ransom Center’s website.
- You can learn more about other the Leigh Hunt book and other famous hair collections in Atlas Obscura’s “Untangling the Secrets of One of Harvard’s Historic Hair Collections” and the Harry Ransom Center’s “Hair Lair: On the Harry Ransom Center’s Lot of Locks”.
- You can check out Galia Ofek’s 2009 book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture to learn more about Victorian hair mania.
- Read more from Kirsten Hall in the Weekly Standard and the New Atlantis.