This story also appears in the July-August 2022 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine.
Of all the strange things in the Library’s collections, the most common strange thing is … hair. Lots of hair.
We have locks of it, tresses, braids, clippings and strands. We have the hair of famous people, not so famous people, and unknown people who sent their hair to someone else.
The Library holds hair from people in the arts such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Walt Whitman and Edna St. Vincent Millay; presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Madison and Ulysses S. Grant; and any number of famous women, including Lucy Webb Hayes (first lady and spouse of President Rutherford B. Hayes); Confederate spy Antonia Ford Willard; Clare Boothe Luce and unidentified hair from Clara Barton’s diary.
Nearly all of the hair stems from the 18th and 19th centuries, in the era before photographs were common and lockets of hair were seen as tokens that could be anything from romantic to momentous. People might go months or years between seeing one another; a lock of hair was a meaningful talisman.
“It provided a tangible reminder of a loved one,” says Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division who oversees collections with many sets of clippings. “Hair from famous heads might be sought for its historic associations, similar to collecting autographs.”
The Library’s numerous hair samples, spread across multiple divisions, are incidental parts of much larger collections. Exchanging bits of hair was so common that President James A. Garfield kept a circular bit of woven hair sewed onto a small piece of paper, tied with a small green ribbon. A note in the middle reads, “My Compliments,” but there is no identification. Garfield thought it important enough to keep in his diary, so the Library preserves it as part of the historical record.
Other samples fall into the souvenir category. Admirers cut off much of Beethoven’s after his death in 1827, so much so that a book was written about it in 2000 (title: “Beethoven’s Hair.”) A Leipzig attorney named Eduard Hase obtained a sample, but parceled much of it out to fellow fans. By the time the locks made it to the Library, the coil was just 26 strands.
Madison’s hair, though, is a thick, rich braided sample of chestnut brown. Long before he was president, the frail and delicate Madison (the shortest of all presidents at 5’4”) fell in love with Catherine Floyd, the daughter of a Continental Congress delegate. In 1783, the pair exchanged ivory miniature portraits of one another; Madison tucked a braided bit of his hair into the back of the locket. The courtship didn’t last; the locket did.
The bereaved also held on to hair as relics of their deceased loved ones, particularly during the Civil War. A small case holds a picture of a child named Carl, a locket of his hair and a note from one of his parents: “My beloved son Carl taken from me on April 1, 1865, at age 18, killed at Dinwiddie. Angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Researchers have determined the boy in the photo might be Union soldier Carlos E. Rogers of Company K, 185th New York. He was killed on March 29 or 30, in fight at Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, less than two weeks before the Confederates surrendered.
While parents today would not likely take a bit of hair as a tangible reminder of their lost child, the impulse to hold onto something lost is with us still.
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