Show / hide menu
We are open for tours Wednesday through Sunday. Purchase tickets when you arrive. 

Victorian Women and Parlour Art – Hair Work (Part Two)

Victorian Women and Parlour Art – Hair Work (Part Two)

By Eliane Pineault-B.

As seen in part one of this series, many middle and upper-class women of the Victorian era were encouraged to create parlour art as pastimes in order to decorate their homes. Any available material could be used to produce these pieces including wool, paper, shells, and many more. The fashion of crafting hair was also very popular between the 1850s and the 1880s and took many forms. Indeed, hair work was done to create parlour domes, shadow boxes, family trees, and jewellery including earrings, bracelets, rings, brooches, and necklaces. Hair jewellery became a fashionable symbol of sentimentality and was used to celebrate love, friendship, family, and death.

One magnificent example in Craigdarroch Castle’s collection is the large hair wreath that can be seen in Joan Dunsmuir’s Sitting room [Fig. 1]. The piece, which is 84.5 cm in length and in height, was made by Sarah Hunter in Ontario between 1866 and 1870. The wreath features a decorative heart-shaped arrangement and it was created using Sarah’s hair, her parents’ hair, the hair of her six sisters, as well as hair from the family horse.[1]
Due to the nature of parlour art and since they were produced by women, the name of many artists are unknown. In this case, we are very lucky to know the maker, some of her history, and even have a picture of Sarah Hunter [Fig. 2].

Similar examples of hair work were done to honour a group of people or to show a family tree. In some instances, numbered pieces of paper are attached to the different hair strands, which correspond to a list with the names of the family members included in the piece.[2] Other hair art compositions were created around family pictures or wedding pictures, again showcasing stories of love and family.[3]

As with every type of parlour art, books, volumes, guides, and magazine articles were written for women to consult in order to make their creations. These would list any materials needed, as well as instructions to clean the hair, and techniques to shape and weave the strands. Hair was often taken from hairbrushes and was sometimes put into hair receivers. One such example can be seen decorating Maud’s dresser in her bedroom in Craigdarroch Castle [Fig. 3]. The glass jar, cut in a diamond pattern, has a silver lid with an opening in order to keep the hair until enough is collected to create wreaths or jewellery.[4]

Jewellery crafted out of hair was the accessory for any fashionable person in the nineteenth century.[5] Fashionable ladies would wear rings, earrings, and brooches made out of hair, and men had watch fobs made out of their wives’ hair.[6] Several designs were made, as can be seen in a book of patterns published by William Halford & Charles Young in 1864 [Fig. 4]. The page showcasing just a few brooch designs includes fashionable patterns, such as snakes, that can be embellished with gold, pearls, or gemstones. The hair of friends and loved ones, living or passed, worn fashionably and close to the body spoke to the Victorians’ idea of sentimentality.

Queen Victoria is known to have kept hair from her children and grandchildren and wore them in jewellery pieces. She sometimes also gave her own hair as favours.[7] After her engagement to Prince Albert, she kept a piece of his hair, which she was never without after he passed away.[8] Hair jewellery then became closely associated with the rituals of mourning in Victorian society, as it served to keep deceased loved ones close even after their departure.

Whether it is as a memento mori, or as a symbol of love and friendship, hair work was done by Victorian women as a method of storytelling that could be worn, treasured, and displayed as fashionable pieces in their homes. While hair art is perceived as unusual nowadays, it is not the only strange material Victorians liked to use. Please come back for the final part of this series, which is dedicated to the use of taxidermy in nineteenth century decorative pieces.


[Fig. 1] Sarah Hunter. Hairwork Wreath, 1866-1870, Ontario. Human hair, horse hair, wood, & glass, 84.5 x 84.5 cm. Craigdarroch Castle 984.080.001a-b.

[Fig. 2] Unknown. Picture of Sarah Hunter, maker of the hairwork wreath [see Fig.1]. Craigdarroch Castle doc984.40.

[Fig. 3] A.J. Pepper & Co. Hair Receiver, 1916, Birmingham, England. Crystal & silver, 7cm. Craigdarroch Castle 993.001.001a-b.

[Fig. 4] William Halford & Charles Young. The Jewellers’ Book of Pattern in Hair Work: containing a great variety of copper-plate engravings of devices and patterns in hair; suitable for mourning jewellery, brooches, rings, guards, alberts, necklets, lockets, bracelets, miniatures, studs, links, earring, &c., London, 1864, p.28. Internet Archive

[1] “Hairwork Wreath (984.080.001a-b),” Craigdarroch Castle. accessed 18 June 2020.
[2] John Whitenight. Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, Schiffer, Atglen, 2013, p.84-85.
[3] Ibid, p.90.
[4] “Hair Receiver (993.001.001a-b),” Craigdarroch Castle. accessed 18 June 2020.
[5] Yan Shu-chuan. “The Art of Working in Hair: Hair Jewellery and Ornamental Handiwork in Victorian Britain,” The Journal of Modern Craft, Volume 12, 2019, Issue 2. 10.1080/17496772.2019.1620429 accessed 17 June 2020.
[6] Rose Eveleth. “Victorians Made Jewelry Out of Human Hair,” Smithsonian Magazine, 24 December 2013. accessed 18 June 2020.
[7] Jane Wildgoose. “Beyond All Price: Victorian Hair Jewelry, Commemoration & Story-Telling,” Fashion Theory, Volume 22, 2018, Issue6, p.718. 10.1080/1362704X.2018.1533345 accessed 18 June 2020.
[8] Ibid.