The Schlesinger Library’s manuscript collections often contain many different types of materials, from correspondence and diaries, to photographs and film. A few collections also contain more distinctive objects, such as keepsakes of locks of hair.
Often found in family and personal papers prior to the mid-20th century, locks of hair can have many meanings: commemoration of a person’s life, tokens of friendship or love, or tangible reminders of a life passed. Hair does not decompose, and because of this, many people cherished it as a symbol of eternal life. Families often passed down keepsakes of hair from generation to generation even after those touched by the person’s life were no longer living.
The keepsakes of hair found in collections at the Library were cut during childhood, sickness, death, or at other less momentous times during a person’s life. These were then sometimes tied with string or colorful ribbon, placed in small carefully labeled envelopes or folded pieces of paper, braided, and sometimes sewn or taped into albums.
Among some famous locks in the Library’s collections are the baby hair from social reformer and author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910), and baby hair from aviator Amelia Earhart (1897–1937).
The Library also holds several collections of family papers which include locks of family members’ hair. The Ames family historical collection represents many generations of a family from the 18th through 20th centuries. Charles Lesley Ames (1884–1969), who would grow up to fight in World War I and to become president of the St. Paul Institute and Science Museum, had multiple locks of hair cut during his first three years of life, and all are included in the collection.
Also within the Ames family papers is the braided hair sample of Susan Inches Lyman Lesley (1823–1904). Lesley, who became involved in the abolitionist and social reform causes in Philadelphia, was ill for much of her life. A cut of her hair was taken during one of her times of illness in 1853.
Another multi-generational family collection, the Blech-Meyer-Dowd family papers contains accounts of the deaths of Sophia Louise Krause Blech (1811–1846), and her two young sons, John Samuel (1843–1849) and Charles, Jr. (1841–1849). The children survived their mother but both died in childhood from sickness three years after her passing. Their father Charles (1805–1850) died one year after his sons. Within the collection is a lock of Charles Blech, Jr.’s hair, carefully stored in a folded piece of paper, and dated 1844, when he was three years old. Generations of the family kept and preserved this memento, attesting to the hair’s profound significance and meaning as an heirloom.
The hairwork album of Etta Smith (1858–1924), is a particularly unique item in the Library’s collections. Within the album are ninety hair samples from members of Smith’s family, such as her mother, father, and grandfather, as well as members of other families. Some hair samples are braided very tightly, some loosely, and some in eyelet braids, all tied with ribbons or swatches of cloth -- one has fabric flowers sewn on the ends. The hair samples are identified by the name of the person, date and age of the individual.
Mementos of locks of hair could be a source of comfort, a sign of affection, a reminder of one’s own mortality, and a sign of immortality. Their presence in some of the Library’s family and personal papers adds a poignant and human quality to the names and relationships represented within these collections.