From the Head to the Heart: The Sentimentality of Hair Art

This week’s object is a sculpture of a floral bouquet made almost entirely out of human hair. Although we might see it as bizarre today, hair art was very popular in the 19th century. Nowadays, we view hair that is no longer on our heads with certain distaste. When we find hair of unknown origin lying around we cringe and if we were to happen upon a lock of hair carefully stored away, we would probably be filled with a feeling of creepiness and chills. Surprisingly, hair has not always been viewed in this way. In fact, it once held a very dear and lovely position in cultures around the world.


For centuries, hair has been used as a sentimental symbol of love and devotion. The practice of exchanging a lock of hair with a loved one or a dear friend has appeared in many cultures around the world in one form or another. Hair has also been used in the mourning process. People would often cut off a piece of hair from a deceased family member and keep it as a memento. You might be wondering why hair was chosen to be used for these purposes. Hair doesn’t decay for a very long while, a few centuries at least, and it often remains looking like it did the day it was taken from its owners head for years after as well. Therefore, hair is the perfect enduring symbol for remembrance.

The practice of using hair in art dates back to as early as the 12th century. During the middle ages, people would take hair that they saved from a deceased relative or friend and weave it into pieces of jewelry such as rings and brooches so that they could always wear the token of remembrance with them. During the 19th century, however, hair art really took off.  People during the Victorian Era were very sentimental. Mourning rituals became a common practice due to the tragic deaths of soldiers during the Civil War and the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Mourning clothing became staples of mainstream fashion and sentimental practices having to do with the commemoration of death, such as hair art, increased in popularity.


At the same time hair art evolved into a popular pastime among middle and high class women. Women would get ideas and patterns from magazines and books to make their own creations. They created the traditional jewelry, but many also created floral wreaths and bouquets that could then be displayed in their homes. To create these floral arrangements, they would often take hair from different family members, both living and deceased, and weave them together into one art piece. This symbolized family unity and the bond that all of the members shared. They would sometimes leave room to expand the arrangement for when their family grew.

This example of hair art that we have in our collection certainly seems to be an example of a nostalgic homemade creation. It is of an unknown date, but we do know that it was owned by Mrs. John LeFevre Deyo who lived from 1823 to 1911. We do not know for sure if she created it herself, but it was displayed in her parlor, so there is a good chance that she is the artist. We also do not know if the hair used was taken from specific family members, but the care and detail present in the intricate fashioning of each flower and stem shows that this piece was clearly dear to whoever made it.

Hudson, Rachel “On Display: A Curious Art” Historic Huguenot Street. 8 October, 2014. Web.
Luke, Walter “The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork” 4 February, 2012. Web.
Palka, Lindsey  “Victorian Hair Art and Mourning Traditions.” 25 July 2016. Web.
“History of Hair Art.” Accessed 17 November 2016. Web.


The Power of the Vote!

By Joseph Rochez

Through most of American history, participating in government decision through voting was limited to only a portion of the American population, which in itself is very undemocratic for a nation that prides itself on being a democracy. Before the Civil War, it was mostly property owning white males who enjoyed the privilege of voting. It was not until the end of the Civil War that African Americans were given that right to vote through the passing of the 15th Amendment. Even then, southern Democrats for the next 80 years made it difficult for people of color to vote. Southern states such as Georgia and Tennessee issued literacy tests and poll taxes to hinder basically most of the Black population from voting. These were just a few methods that were used to keep people of color from voting.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that women were given suffrage in what was known to be a progressive era in the United States.

Even with the progressive era closing some inequality among gender, African Americans and other minority groups still suffered some limitations at the voting booths which gave White people the edge when it came to voting. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s as well as the burden of the Cold War put pressure on the federal government to act on the inequality and injustices towards African American communities that were guaranteed to them as citizens under the court of law and the constitution. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson eliminated barriers at the state and local level which made it unconstitutional to restrict voting by using literacy tests and poll taxes. At this time in history, the Democratic party has become increasingly liberal and progressive while marginalizing the conservative and racist dixiecrats (Southern Democrats). This legislation came following the violence that occurred in Selma, Alabama during a peaceful voting rights march where state troopers violently beat many of the protesters to near death.

In 2016, we see greater minority participation in local and federal elections. Although this is encouraging, voter turnout is low. Only about 53% of the general population votes in presidential elections. It’s even less for congressional elections. In a nation like Britain, voter turnout is 61%. Voting is essential to democracy. Throughout the 20th century we can see that American society makes an effort to show that it is a true democracy and urges Americans to vote. This pin in the HHS Permanent Collection is from 1952, urging Americans to vote from Chicago and was distributed by the American Legion, a wartime veteran’s organization that was formed in 1919. Promoting the vote is probably what led to an increasing amount of Americans eligible to vote to do just that. It is probably the reason why Dwight Eisenhower won on a landslide over Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson in 1952. There is a saying; ‘when you want something that badly, you go and get it’. The change you want isn’t going to happen unless you act on it.

I pledge to vote

Click here to see more 20th century campaign pins from our historic collections.


Desilver, Drew. “U.S. Voter Turnout Trails Most Developed Countries.” Pew Research Center. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts. Web. 2 August 2016. Staff. “Voting Rights Act.” A+E Networks, 2009. Web. 1 November 2016.

The Importance of Voting.” MassVOTE. Boston: MassVOTE, 2013. Web. 1 November 2016.

Ooicu812baby. Vtg Antique Estate Very Rare 1952 I Voted Flag Pin Back Button LJ Imber Chicago.” eBay Inc. Web. 1 November 2016.

A 19th Century American Girl

By Carly Benedict

This week, our object is a doll that dates from the mid to late 19th century and belonged to Gertrude Van Order DuBois. The doll is an African American woman wearing clothing typical of the period. She is dressed in a pink blouse and floral skirt, a white apron, and a wide-brimmed brown cap. She is made entirely out of cloth and stuffed. Her head is knitted and has beads for eyes and sewn-on facial features.

Dolls have not only been a part of American culture since the country’s founding, but they’ve also been a worldwide staple for thousands of years. Humans have always been fascinated with images and the visual portrayal of their own species, so it makes sense that dolls became common in almost every culture.

The earliest dolls were made out of materials that we would find unusual today.  In ancient Egypt, dolls made out of pottery were common and in ancient Greece, dolls were made out of baked clay and wood. Amazingly, dolls in ancient Greece and Rome often had articulated limbs that could be moved around and posed. More modern dolls didn’t have moveable limbs until the 19th century! Along with clay and wood, bone, fur, and wax were also common materials.

Early dolls were used as playthings but could have other uses as well. They were often used for educational purposes or as elements in religious and magic rituals. It seems like dolls were used mainly by girls in most cultures throughout history. In ancient Greece when girls got married, they would dedicate their dolls to the local goddess as a way of marking their passage into womanhood.

Dolls continued to be made all throughout history around the world up into the 19th century. Dolls were usually made at home, but during the Industrial Revolution, they began to be mass-produced in factories. The mass-produced dolls were quite expensive due in part to being made out of porcelain, so doll making at home was still a common practice up until the early 20th century. Dolls made at home were often made out of whatever scraps of fabric were lying around at the time. They were also often crudely rendered because they were made by ordinary people who didn’t have access to the best materials.


African American dolls have a particularly rich history in American folk art as well. Originally, cloth rag dolls were made by slaves for their children to play with. These dolls were highly prized and cherished, for slave children didn’t have many other things to play with. African American dolls were not mass-produced until after the Civil War, when their popularity in both America and Europe increased. These factory-made dolls were very far from perfect, however. The dolls were often offensive caricatures of the appearances of African Americans. Often times, porcelain doll makers would take the heads of the white dolls and merely paint them black, resulting in a bizarre looking doll with dark skin and Caucasian features. These offensive dolls promoted racism against African Americans and the appalling blackface iconography that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The first mass-produced African American dolls with realistic facial features didn’t come out until the 1960’s. If African American children during the mid to late 19th century wanted a doll that actually looked like them, then they would have to make one at home.


This doll in our collection is a beautiful example of a homemade cloth doll. It seems that whoever created it was meticulous in their craftsmanship and took time and care while making it. The lovely clothing and delicate rendering of the face gives the doll an appearance of being a normal every day woman which is much nicer than the highly offensive dolls being manufactured at the same time. Any child, but more importantly any African American child, would be proud to call this doll their own.


Dolls from the Index of American Design.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art: Washington, DC. Web. 20 October 2016.

Interesting History of Dolls.” History of Dolls. Web. 20 October 2016.

Unkenholz, Tim. “If You Think Dolls Are Creepy Now, Just Wait Til You See Their Origins…ViralNova. Web. 20 October 2016.

“Dolls and Dollhouses.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.: New York. Web. 20 October 2016.