Ties That Bind: Hairwork as Family Portrait in the Nineteenth-Century United States

by Victoria Kenyon

Figure 1. Lucy Grow, “Hair from Lucy [17], Harriet [15], Miranda [12] and Louisa [7] Grow,” in Lucy Grow’s Book (ca. 1839). Paper, ribbon, hair, and mixed media. 6 x 4 in. (15.2 x 10.2 cm). Warren, VT. Rare Books and Miscellaneous, Costume Collection. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Photograph by the author.
The hairwork album is six by four inches, unassuming, its white pages bound in brown paper and tied with black ribbon. Yet, the objects within it are powerful beyond their scale. They are portraits, but not in the traditional sense of the term; each one is made of human hair, ranging in color from light to dark brown, which has been formed into a chain and affixed to the page with colored paper covering its ends. Names under each portrait identify the individual from whom it came, and numbers sometimes record the person’s age. The first page clearly establishes the identity of the maker and her location: Lucy Grow created this album, using hair from herself, her immediate family, and extended relations or friends (fig. 2). The exact date when she began compiling her hair portraits is not clear, but, based on comparisons between her writing and the genealogical record, around 1839 seems likely.1 Grow would have been 17 years old, living in Warren, Vermont with her family. Her album belongs to a long lineage of hair objects, which were popular in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States and Britain. An irony of the scholarship on hairwork is that it has most often been studied in general terms; objects are usually treated as mere strands in the vast web of Victorian sentimentality, which erases the reality of hair as a hyper-individual material.2 If we want to understand hair objects fully, we should approach them as they were meant to be viewed: as individual and familial portraits.

Figure 2. Lucy Grow, “[Title Page],” Lucy Grow’s Book (ca. 1839). Paper, ribbon, hair, and mixed media. 6 x 4 in. (15.2 x 10.2 cm). Warren, VT. Rare Books and Miscellaneous, Costume Collection. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Photograph by the author.
Grow’s book, now in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at Penn State, contains thirty-six hair objects and provides a case study for exploring the hairwork album as a composite family portrait. Past scholars, including Marcia Pointon, writing on the British context, and Robin Jaffee Frank and Helen Sheumaker on the American context, have illuminated the history of hairwork. Pointon and Frank show how hair functioned as an embodiment of an individual in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries.3 Sheumaker has built on that analysis by peeling back the layers of class, sentimentality, and commodification in the production of hairwork. Sentiment—the nineteenth-century culture of emotion and sincerity, which Karen Halttunen has connected to the development of the “cult of domesticity” and private sphere of womanhood in the period—is an unavoidable part of the history of hair objects.4 Unlike much scholarship on this art, my analysis focuses more on the hairwork album as a family record; viewed as a collection of portraits created and notated by the family’s daughter, it subverts the traditional identity of the male family historian. Through domestic craft, Grow imbued the act of family legacy-keeping with affective power as only she could. I show how her book served as a family and community portrait, a marker of connection, and question what it meant for young women who made such objects to be familial image-shapers.

The young artist collected her central material, hair, from people both in and outside of her immediate family. Grow’s placement choices establish family connections and provide crucial context for the way we are meant to read her album. On one page, she depicts herself and her sisters in nearly-identical hair chains inscribed with each girl’s age and arranged from left to right in descending age order (see fig. 1). This arrangement suggests the format of the family tree, the botanical iconography of which goes back to the Tree of Jesse motif in Christian Medieval and Early Modern Europe.5 Such documents and other genealogical records, including family registers, were historically important to establishing familial connection. Karin Wulf has examined the religious and political implications of familial genealogy in British America, noting the reflection (and indeed support) of white, patriarchal systems of inheritance in the practice of listing one’s family members and recording events such as marriages, births, and deaths in record books and family bibles.6 As in hairwork, there was an element of sentimentality in the emotional connection evoked through documenting one’s family, as well as a didactic quality. Though apparently not a necessary component, some such documents also included physical likenesses of individuals alongside names, as evidenced in an 1875 Vermont marriage certificate (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Marriage certificate of Ezra J. Mower and Emma A. Nye. Montpelier, Vermont. (1875). Vermont Historical Society. Courtesy of Vermont Historical Society. 

Grow’s medium does not provide as direct an image of a person as would a photograph, but her portraits reveal some facets of appearance that photos or other media could not, including the full tonal ranges of a person’s hair. There may have even been an olfactory component to the objects; another nineteenth-century album, made by Louisa Rice of Paradise Township, Pennsylvania, included a perfume label in a hair portrait of the artist’s sister (fig. 4). Coupled with the fact that period advice guides directed young women to perfume their hair, this suggests that Louisa Rice may have applied the perfume to which the label belonged to that hair portrait, and Grow may have similarly scented her objects to strengthen the connections between individual and portrait.7 Grow also creatively shows physical differences in the sisters’ portraits in figure 1; the youngest’s (Louisa, 7) is noticeably smaller. Grow continually groups family members together in her album. Another page depicts her parents and some of their children, though Lucy herself is missing; the Kelseys, included at the bottom of the page, may have been Grow family cousins, as they shared a house with the Grows (fig. 5).8 Again, the arrangement of the hairwork portraits, with the mother and father at the top of the page and their children below, suggests a genealogical record, albeit an incomplete one.

Figure 4. Louisa Rice, “Miss Eliza Rice,” in Louisa Rice’s Album (ca. 1853). Mixed media. 7.8 x 6.3 in. (19.7 x 15.9 cm). Paradise Township, York County, PA. Rare Books and Miscellaneous, Costume Collection. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Photograph by the author.
Figure 5. Lucy Grow, “Family Page,” in Lucy Grow’s Book (ca. 1839). Paper, ribbon, hair, and mixed media. 6 x 4 in. (15.2 x 10.2 cm). Warren, VT. Rare Books and Miscellaneous, Costume Collection. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries. Photograph by the author.

Another nineteenth-century Vermont family, the Garvins, recorded their members in a mass-produced family register showing the parents listed above the children (fig. 6). This lithograph includes illustrations of a typical white family: mother, father, son, and daughter. In one vignette, the dutiful mother tends to her children, and in another, she gazes at her husband, who does not look back at her. This imagery further demonstrates the patriarchal nature of genealogical practice, as described by Wulf. This patriarchal family record-keeping imagery appears in popular media too: an 1875 print after Winslow Homer from Harper’s Bazar shows a family in the act of writing down their history. The bearded white man records a new addition to the family lying in a cradle at his feet in a large book, his wife dutifully holding the ink pot steady as he makes his marks while the man’s ancestor watches from a painting above (fig. 7).9 Herein lies the tension that Grow’s album produces. Unlike the Garvin register or the Harper’s print, this woman does not just play a supporting role in providing or recording a family image. Grow is the maker of her album’s portraits, and the inscriber of her family’s names.

Figure 6. “Henry H. and Charlotte S. Garvin Family Register” (1807-85). Published by C. Currier’s (New York). Hand-colored lithograph. Vermont Historical Society.
Figure 7. After Winslow Homer, The Family Record, from Harper’s Bazar, Vol. VIII, (August 28, 1875). Published by Harper & Brothers (New York). Wood engraving. 12 x 8.1 in. (30.5 x 20.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933.

Most early professional hairwork makers were white, middle-class men trained as jewelers or metalworkers who fulfilled commissions to produce brooches, pocket watch chains, and other wearable articles (fig. 8).10 By the mid-nineteenth century, some women produced hairwork in their own homes, effectively cutting out the middleman to make objects directly from their family members’ hair. Interested crafters could reference a variety of texts, including Mark Campbell’s Self-instructor in the Art of Hair Work (1867) and articles in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine. Campbell claims his book “will prove an indispensable adjunct to every lady’s toilet table.”11 Likewise, Godey’s assures “the fair reader” need not “be alarmed…I do not intend to frighten her with a long list of expensive machinery and tools.” Instead, she could use tools common in textile crafts, such as scissors and knitting needles.12 It is hard to know if Grow would have consulted sources like these, as the images in both of these texts look quite different from the objects she produced, and both were published decades after the initial date in her book. Still, these sources show how middle-class women learned this distinctly feminine-coded craft.

Figure 8. Print advertisement for “Hair Work and Granite Ornaments,” in Art industry: metal-work, illustrating the chief processes of art work applied by the goldsmith, silversmith, jeweller, etc., George Wagstaff Yapp (ed.) (London: Virtue, 1878). New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Grow would likely have seen her album’s connections to other domestic arts; she even included a recipe for madder root fabric dye, which could be used for textiles, in the back of her book (fig. 9). This further links her hair album with so-called “women’s work,” or those domestic crafts long undervalued in art criticism and scholarship.13 Grow was probably also intimately aware of hair as an expression of gender, which was integral to the nineteenth-century white woman’s image-fashioning, as evidenced in period advice guides.14 Domestic labor and hair were markers of feminine identity, and hairwork combined both of these forms of gender expression. Thus, it is even more noteworthy that Grow and other domestic hairworkers used the craft to depict not only themselves but also their female and male relatives. One wonders if the young artist saw irony in her use of hair, so often employed to display a woman’s status, to depict a brother or cousin instead.

Figure 9. “Receipt for Coloring Mader [sic]” in Lucy Grow’s Book (ca. 1839). Paper, ribbon, hair, and mixed media. 6 x 4 in. (15.2 x 10.2 cm). Warren, VT. Rare Books and Miscellaneous, Costume Collection. Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Transcription: Wash the cloth in soap suds scald the cloth in alum water 3 quarters of an hour air it often take it out rense [sic] it in clean water as long as it looks white then put the mader into some water it wants 2 pound of mader to 8 yards of cloth and about a pint of wheat flour and half a pound alum to 2 pound of mader. Photograph by the author.
Thus, I disagree with Helen Sheumaker’s claims that hair albums like Grow’s were about “[negating] the hypocritical urge for egotistical self-display” and an “effacement of [women’s] own selves for the beneficial display of others around them.”15 As if weaponizing hair’s representational power, Grow used the material to shape the images of others, thereby exercising agency not afforded her in her actual family as a daughter who would never become a future patriarch or inherit property. Her book likely became a family heirloom meant to be displayed and its inscriptions read, further evidenced by its preservation and ultimate donation to an archive. Unlike in wearable articles or hair wreaths made from the hair of several family members, Grow’s inscriptions made the identities contained within her album clearly legible. Its small size also meant it was portable and, much like the family Bible, there is a sense of communal ownership rather than privacy in its format. Again, it is hard to avoid sentimentality completely; books like Grow’s evoke a multisensory experience of family history. A full exploration of the haptic and olfactory qualities of hair is outside the scope of my analysis here, but they certainly played a role in making her hair album a potent vehicle for family connection.

Writing about salvage arts, feminist scholar Elaine Hedges argues, “in seeking to understand more fully the everyday lives of nineteenth-century women, we must piece together scraps as they once did.”16 The archive does not preserve the full story of Grow’s life, nor that of her family. The traces of the Grows I have managed to find are owed to the genealogical connections revealed in Lucy’s pages. She pieced together her family and community members’ hair in her books, and we can now learn about their lives through her work. As I have made clear, these were not neutral or entirely innocent practices: in creating these hair portraits, Grow promoted a family history that, while subversive in some ways, fit firmly within white, patriarchal systems. Albums like hers provide tremendous potential for further considerations of collaboration, women’s work, and the many other meanings woven into hairwork. As I have argued, they also expand our views of gender and family image-fashioning in the nineteenth-century United States.


Victoria Kenyon is a Curatorial Track doctoral student in the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware. Her research interests include the history of religion and the supernatural in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American art, and she is especially fond of exploring the macabre in visual and material culture.


1. The original date listed for this album in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library records was c. 1820, but the 1870 census record shows that Lucy (by that time married and with two children) was born in 1822. In the album, she notes her age is 17. U.S. Census Bureau, “1870 United States Federal Census,” National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed through Ancestry, images reproduced by FamilySearch.

2. See Helen Sheumaker, Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

3. Marcia Pointon, “‘Surrounded with Brilliants’: Miniature Portraits in Eighteenth-Century England,” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (Mar. 2001): 61; Robin Jaffee Frank, Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 13; Sheumaker, Love Entwined.

4. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 58-60.

5. Heather Wolfe, “Where do Family Trees Come From?,” Folger Shakespeare Library, February 21, 2014. https://www.folger.edu/blogs/collation/where-do-family-trees-come-from/.

6. Karin Wulf, “Bible, King, and Common Law: Genealogical Literacies and Family History Practices in British America,” Early American Studies 10, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 482-86.

7. Emily Thornwell, The Lady’s Guide to Complete Etiquette in Manners, Dress and Conversation, in the Family, in Company, at the Pianoforte, the Tables, in the Street, and in Gentlemen’s Society. Also a Useful Instructor in Letter Writing, Toilet Preparations, Fancy Needlework, Millinery, Dressmaking, Care of Wardrobe, the Hair, Teeth, Hands, Lips, Complexion, Etc. (Madison, WI: T.T. Rustone, 1887), 33-36.

8. U.S. Census Bureau, “1860 United States Federal Census,” National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed through Ancestry, images reproduced by FamilySearch.

9. Though outside the scope of my analysis here, Shawn Michelle Smith’s interrogation of racial family imagery is essential to my reading of this image: “‘Baby’s Picture is Always Treasured’: Eugenics and the Reproduction of Whiteness in the Family Photograph Album,” Yale Journal of Criticism 11, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 197-220.

10. Sheumaker, Love Entwined, 34-35.

11. Mark Campbell, Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description: Compiled from Original Designs and the Latest Parisian Patterns (New York: M. Campbell, 1867), 6.

12. “The Art of Ornamental Hairwork,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine 58 (February-April, 1859): 153.

13. See Lucy Lippard, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976).

14. Thornwell, Lady’s Guide to Complete Etiquette, 33-36.

15. Sheumaker, Love Entwined, 26.

16. Elaine Hedges, “The Nineteenth-Century Diarist and Her Quilts,” Feminist Studies 8, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 298.

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