At an estate sale I recently was lucky enough to get this little, unassuming, antique book… Plain brown boards, penciled notes and a math problem… A slim 6 and one-half inches 3 and one-half by inches.
It may not seem appealing to you — and that, likely, is how I managed to procure it. But hubby and I always look for old books; no matter how bland and boring their outsides are, the insides can be fabulous. And this is one of those fabulous ones. Inside, on the fragile old pages, are little Victorian hair braids — Victorian mourning pieces!
There are only a few of them, each carefully glued in place, the fading script documenting the details. But holding the book in your hands is a magical sort of a moment. I find it as close to sacred as any experience I’ve had.
Some people find this creepy. Or just plain wrong. But Victorians didn’t pretend death wasn’t a part of life, yet they also took their mourning seriously. They had more than the short and simple funeral services we have today; they had many more rules of etiquette. And they had more rituals, most of which I think would be more comforting and that I find beautiful. Including mourning hair art.
Because hair is symbolic and it lasts forever, Victorians would save hair from the deceased loved one and make mementos they could keep forever. According to Godey’s Lady’s Book (circa 1950):
Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.
Sometimes it was jewelry they could wear. Other times it was incredible sculptures, like the one seen on Oddities. And sometimes the hair was simply and eloquently braided and placed in a memorial book like this.
Notice how the neat old script includes the name, age, and either the death or birth date of the lost person below their braid of hair.
In the above photo you’ll see the wispy curl of hair that has not been braided so much as decorated around… It is the only piece of hair not braided and glued in place, but rather it’s affixed to a small swatch of fabric and golden “stickers” surround it. The roughly inch long piece of hair was not long enough to braid… It belonged to a three month old baby.
[Everyone say, “Awwww…”]
I’ve not yet decided how long I’ll keep this beautiful memorial book…
Part of me wants to keep it forever. But I also know I risk becoming obsessed with finding more, of building another collection… And this is a pricey category of collecting.