The history of hair collecting

Let's face it. Collecting hair sounds like a strange pursuit. Nevertheless, acquiring famous locks has long been a popular hobby, and isn't as odd as you might imagine.

Today, thousands of collectors worldwide collect the hair of celebrities, keen to get close to their idols. The market has seen tremendous growth, and as a result, values are climbing.

In December 2012, a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair sold for $38,837, making a 55% increase on estimate.

Beginning in earnest

Hair Work Jewellery
A beautifully framed example of hair jewellery, a popular choice with Victorians

Hair collecting truly began with the Victorians, who prized long hair as a symbol of femininity, as opposed to the powdered wigs of past eras. Predating the photograph and more intimate than an autograph, a lock of hair was the ultimate connection with its owner.

"More so than an autograph, it was a sign of affection," said Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to the New York Times.

However, the Victorian obsession wasn't centred on celebrity. Instead, hair was often given by parted lovers or taken as a memento from dead luminaries. Ladies would even collect their own fallen strands to have remade into detachable extensions.

When King George IV died in 1830, the Duke of Wellington reported finding "a prodigious quantity of hair - women's hair - all colours and lengths, some locks with powder and pomatum still sticking to them" among his possessions.

Placed in lockets and decorative jars, the hair of loved ones was even transformed into jewellery, known as hair work - Queen Victoria said that Empress Eugenie of France was "touched to tears when I gave her a bracelet with my hair".  

The hobby of hair collecting was also popular with the French aristocracy, that is, until the hair of King Louis XVI was seized following his execution during the French revolution. In 1998, a lock of his hair rescued by a drummer at the beheading sold for $5,536.

America's heroic hair

George Armstrong Custer photograph
Custer was famed for his flowing golden curls, with his troops nicknaming him 'Ringlets'

The colonies adopted hair collecting readily and it was particularly embraced in America, where soldiers departing for war would leave their loved ones with a lock.

Yet, perhaps it wasn't the affectionate Victorians they were inspired by, but the fearsome Native Americans. General Custer is said to have shaved his head before the Battle of Little Bighorn to avoid scalping, giving the locks to his wife, Libby, before he rode off.

A braided lock of the general's famous blonde curls sold for $21,510 in June 2013.

Soon, America's beloved presidents became the focus of America's collectors. Dealer John Reznikoff is known for his collection of historical hair, which reportedly includes a $500,000 strand of hair from Abraham Lincoln that still has pieces of brain matter attached from his assassination.

A growing phenomenon

Mary Pickford hair lock
A lock of Mary Pickford's famous hair at the Debbie Reynolds auction at Profiles In History in 2011

In the early 20th century, the cult of celebrity was born, and from this came an increasing demand for memorabilia. Collectors began acquiring items from the early stars of the screen as well as musicians.

Silent film star Mary Pickford - the then-Queen of Hollywood - was known for her perfect ringlets, which earned her the nickname The Girl with the Curls. During the first world war, when promoting Liberty Bonds with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Canadian Pickford kissed the American flag before auctioning off one of her curls for $15,000.

One collector hooked on hair is Leila Cohoon, a retired cosmetologist teacher in the US, who has dedicated her life to collecting hair since 1949, with the belief that it is one of the most unique parts of the human body.

Cohoon opened Leila's Hair Museum - the only one of its kind in the world - in 1989 to house her increasing collection, which now covers several rooms top to bottom. Her oldest exhibit is from 1680 and interestingly, Cohoon states she doesn't collect hair from famous people, though there is plenty on display, including Elvis Presley, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Diamonds and clones 

Beethoven's Bach: could we see a return of the great German composer?

As technology advances, hair has also proved itself useful. DNA tests on historical hair have revealed that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with one of his slaves, while a strand from John Reznikoff's own collection came in handy when Jack Worthington II claimed to be an illegitimate child of John F Kennedy.

Beethoven was recently revealed to have had lead poisoning prior to his death. The composer's hair was in such demand that his head was near bald by the time he died, as each visitor to his deathbed took a snippet (or two).

And who knows what advancements the coming years might bring. A company has already converted a small amount of Beethoven's hair into a diamond, which received bids of $202,000 on eBay. Before long, we could see cloned superstars, rebuilt from the information stored within a tiny fragment of their hair - a Canadian dentist bought the tooth of John Lennon in 2011 for $31,000, hoping to clone the dead Beatle.

Today, celebrity culture permeates all aspects of life and collecting hair from famous names has never been so popular. Pop legends such as Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and John Lennon have all seen huge prices at auction, while strong markets are developing for new stars such as Justin Bieber.

Paul Fraser Collectibles has one of the best selections of hair for sale on the market today.

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