Now should you think this piece of art decor is a hairpiece, you wouldn't be terribly wrong. Granted, someone who would wear such adornment might beckon deity from subterranean regions, one of those wild ones Young Goodman Brown stumbled on in the forest one fateful night. Then, maybe it could have crowned the head of footloose flapper from the Twenties.
It is neither, but it is hair, hard as that is to believe--or at least hard as it was to believe for me, never having heard of "hairwork," an art form now long gone but of great worth to ordinary, middle-class Americans of the 19th century. It is possible, even likely, that the hair in this monstrosity belonged to someone in the household of the Reverend John Todd, a firebrand Congregationalist preacher who picked up a lifelong dose of abolitionism from the years he spent at Oberlin College.
I'd never seen "hairwork" before, but ran into it first when walking through the modest bungalow built by the Reverend Todd, who talked politics frequently with none other than John Brown ("molderin'-in-the-grave" John Brown). This John Todd, whose beard could have decorated most of the walls of his family home in Tabor, Iowa, where he became, long after his death, the prototype of the firebrand abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.
We know this much: this piece of "hairwork" decorated the walls of Rev. Todd's bedroom, well, their bedroom, he and his wife's. The hair might well have been their own--some people did that. Giving up one's hair was sometimes held to be both an honor and a sacrifice. It's likely, however, that the hair in this wall-hanging (that's a difficult phrase to say, isn't it?) belonged to someone else, perhaps a friend or relative. Hairwork techniques, I guess, were sophisticated enough to make designs like this one from relatively short cuts of hair. In other words, you could donate even if you weren't a Nazarene.
Only the Todds likely know whose hair it is, and they're long gone.
Before you decide that such art was decidedly, even embarrassingly bourgeois, check this out:
This hanging still graces the truly aristocratic walls of General Crook House in old Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Major General George Crook was very definitely upper class, the Commander of the Army of the Platte, a highly decorated military general. Visitors to his beautiful Italianate home included a number of Presidents, Crook being, even in his lifetime, one of the most celebrated Indian fighters of the era.
The different colors of this one do more than suggest different pates. Family? Friends? We'll never know.
Still, today, it only makes me shudder. Anything's possible, of course, so I wouldn't doubt that somewhere across the face of this great nation a man or woman is plotting out his or her own hairwork art. But my first reaction, in the Todd house and in the Crook House, was "eeooouuu."
American business enterprise killed "hairwork art," I guess, because as soon as its production became an enterprise rather than folk art, people began to suspect that its raw materials were harvested from cemeteries. When entrepreneurs determined there was a buck to be made, they started turning them out, dime a dozen. That's when grave suspicions arose.
Thus it ended, the coffin sealed forever by unknown sources for fancy hairwork art you could just pick up from Sears Roebuck.
Once upon a time they were both high fashion and low. Today, they evoke little more than a shudder.
There's a sermon there. Or four. Or five. Please feel free to choose your own.
And how about this? All this fancy hairwork is being touted from the keyboard of a bald man.