I can’t decide if the topic of this blog is interesting or just plain gross. My nose wrinkles when I think about it. I get itchy. My neck prickles. I don’t get this old Victorian practice at all, and it strikes me as too weird to explain.
This fascination started during a chat with my mother-in-law. We were looking at some of her treasures, things that have been in her family for a long time. One of those items was something I couldn’t identity.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know what it’s called,” she answered. “But women used it to save hair they pulled from their brushes.”
My eyebrows shot up. “Why would they save it?” (Anything that comes out of my hairbrush goes in the trash or down the toilet.)
Neither of us knew, so I did some googling and discovered Victorian hair receivers, “ratts” and the lost art of hair jewelry.
In Victorian times, just about every woman had a hair receiver on her dressing table. She also had a lot of hair. After brushing it, she’d cull the broken strands from the brush and put them in the container. Hair receivers were typically made of porcelain, glass, wood or celluloid. They sat in plain sight and were generally quite pretty. They’re most easily identified by the finger-sized hold in their lids, designed to allow a woman to push through the hair.
Hair receivers kept a dressing table clean and free from loose strands, but what do you do with the hair? Commonly, the collected hair was used to make pin cushions. The wad could be quite dense, and the oil on the hair had a lubricating effect on the pins. The hair could also be used to make small pillows. The soft texture gave it an advantage over pin feathers, which could be prickly.
The collected hair had another common use. A woman’s hair was considered “her crowning glory.” As a result, Victorian women had elaborate hairstyles. To get the fullness and volume, they used “ratts” (sometimes spelled rats). A ratt was made by stuffing a hairnet with hair, sewing it shut and inserting it into the elaborate coif. A ratt, roughly the size of a potato, gave a Victorian woman her trademark “Big Hair.”
A lot of us probably have a lock of hair in a scrap book. I’ve got a snip from my oldest son’s first haircut. In Victorian times, this sentimental practice went far beyond a snip or two in a locket. “Hair art” might have been the “scrapbooking” of its day. It was considered a suitable occupation for young ladies and gave rise to a variety of interesting creations.
Mourning brooches were common. With high infant mortality rates and the devastation of the Civil War, death was very much present. Jewelry made from the hair of a lost loved one was seen as a fitting memorial. Friends and family members often exchanged sentimental tokens. The hair used in hair art didn’t typically come from hair receivers. It was carefully selected for color and texture and had to be straight to get the desired effect. Hair jewelry is deserves a blog of its own.
So what do you think? Are hair receivers gross or useful? I’m still on the fence, but I’m in awe of women who made such good use of something I’d have thrown away.