Hair Relics and Victorian Death Culture

By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate Museum Studies
Graduate Assistant Armstrong Browning Library and Museum

Origins

This blog post is in conversation with and inspired by a mini exhibit, And It Was All Black featured last semester in the Hankamer Treasure Room at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL). During my research I learned that Victorian mourning practices and customs permeated society through tactile objects which were heavily symbolic. Mourning the passing of a loved one did not stop after the funeral. The Victorians had an active and complex death culture. One of the main features of this culture is the use of material objects as relics. The most prolific material object used was hair. These hair relics connected people with their faith, a loved one, even with celebrities. The origin of hair as relic culture in the United Kingdom began in earnest during the Elizabethan age as Protestantism took hold and Catholicism was suppressed. It filled a cultural void left when Queen Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII broke away from Rome and the Catholic church. Shortly after this break, he dissolved English monasteries who kept many religious relics. Before this break with Rome people connected with religious relics made of bone and hair. These relics were held by the Catholic church and were purported to be of saints and therefore were venerated as holy. From this time through the Victorian era, we see a cultural shift that used holy relics to understand life, death and spirituality replaced by ordinary, personal relics.

Evangelicalism and Spiritualism

These hair mementos also held a special place in the Victorian subcultural movements of Evangelicalism and Spiritualism. These two religious movements intimately interacted with death and believed in an afterlife. They both believed that the afterlife had a materiality to it and that the living and dead were connected. The Spiritualists interactions with death drew from Gothicism and was more erotic in nature, it viewed death as beautiful. An example of eroticism and hair relic culture is found in the Brontë’s classic Gothic novel Wuthering Heights when Heathcliff goes to his love, Catherine’s, bedchamber after she dies and places a piece of his hair in a locket around her neck. Later, he bribes a graveyard worker (sexton) to dig up Catherine’s coffin and says, “I got the sexton, … to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once, I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again – it is hers yet –… “(288-289), Lutz, 130. Another example of hair being used as a romantic death relic is found in Victorian author Wilkie Collins’s novel No Name “I can sit and look at your sometimes, till I almost think I am looking at Frank. Oh, my darling! … she put the lock of hair…to her lips. It fell from her fingers into her boson. A lovely tinge of color rose on her cheeks, and spread downward to her neck, as if it followed the falling hair.” (189).  Contrastingly, the Evangelicals saw death as good and helped them connect with their Christian faith. They also believed that in death one would be reunited with their loved ones and these relationships would continue in an afterlife.

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ABL’s Hairy Holdings

The ABL has many styles of hair relics. Our Molineux collection features a hair basket and a veil woven with hair. We also have a folk-art piece made from a plait of Elizabeth’s Barret Browning’s (EBB) hair encircling a large leaf. When the Victorians created hair wreaths or put a snippet of hair into a locket or ring, they transformed the hair into a cultural subject. This transformation is important because it gives a material object meaning. It becomes a symbol for love, affection, loss. It also is highly intimate and personal. It is a way of bonding and connecting with a person whom one admires and loves. The weightiness of this intimacy is not taken lightly, it is a serious affair. We see this in a courtship letter from Robert Browning (RB) to EBB date 23 November 1845:

Give me, dearest beyond expression, what I have always dared to think I would ask you for .. one day! Give me .. wait—for your own sake, not mine who never, never dream of being worth such a gift .. but for your own sense of justice, and to say, so as my heart shall hear, that you were wrong and are no longer so, give me so much of you—all precious that you are—as may be given in a lock of your hair– I will live and die with it, and with the memory of you—this at the worst!

In a letter written nine days after this one we learn that EBB gave RB a locket of her hair, in his response we see the gift of her hair as a symbol of love and devotion, “I will live and die with your beautiful ring, your beloved hair—comforting me, blessing me.”

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We see the use of relic culture carried on by ABL’s founder Dr. Armstrong. He acquired RB’s signet ring and wore it regularly; this can be seen in ABL’s portrait of Dr. Armstrong which hangs in our John Leddy-Jones Research Hall. Perhaps Dr. Armstrong wore RB’s signet ring to feel closer to a man he admired and studied. This aligns with the Victorians use of material relics to keep a loved one’s memory close and alive. Dr. Armstrong revered RB and his life’s work culminated in the construction of our beloved ABL.

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Works Cited

“Collections.” https://collections.vam.ac.uk/search/?q=Dinham%2c%20Harry%20Carr. Accessed 14 December 2021.

Collins, Wilkie. Hide and Seek. London: Oxford, 1993.

“Explore the Collection.” https://www.rct.uk/collection/search#/17/collection/421980/william-iv-1765-1837-when-duke-of-clarence. Accessed 14 December 2021.

Hollieology. “Beyond All Price- jane Wildgoose.” https://holliebarton.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/beyond-all-price-jane-wildgoose/. Accessed 14 December 2021.

Hoover, Carl. “Historic Waco, Armstrong Browning present Victorian mourning customs.” Waco Tribune-Herald [Waco, TX], 20 oct. 2021.

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 39, 2011, pp. 127-142.

Robert Browning’s letter to Elizabeth Barret Browning. 23 November 1845. Manuscript.

Robert Browning’s letter to Elizabeth Barret Browning. 2 December 1845. Manuscript.

Scarisbrick, Diana. “The Aberdeen Jewel.” The Burlington Magazine, Jun. 1988, pp. 427-428.

Wildgoose, Jane. “Beyond All Price: Victorian Hair Jewelry, Commemoration & Story-Telling.” Fashion Theory, vol. 22, no. 6, 2018, pp. 699-726.

4 thoughts on “Hair Relics and Victorian Death Culture

  1. Katrina,
    Nice article! You have shared a tradition that is a bit sweet and creepy at the same time. Thanks for your research.

      • Mrs. Cable,
        Yes, I could have gone into more depth and detail for readers who are not familiar with Victorian subcultures. Unfortunately, these items are only used for exhibition and would not be used for DNA testing. Some of them are over 100 years old and are quite fragile. I would be curious to know if DNA could still be extracted from them.

        Katrina

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