Messy Brushes, Big Hair and A Strange Form of Art

Vicki LogoI 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. Hair receiver blue

“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. hair receiver 3

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.

hair receiver girlThe 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.hair on chain

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.

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Victoria Bylin is under contract with Bethany House Publishers for two inspirational contemporary romances.Prior to jumping to the present day, she wrote westerns for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

18 thoughts on “Messy Brushes, Big Hair and A Strange Form of Art”

  1. Hi Victoria, how nice this article.
    I also throw my hair in the trash bin but this conception of the hair as a “treasure” I’ve always liked. My great-grandmother, died at the age of 80 years. She had long dark hair down to his knees that he always tied. My grandmother (his daughter) when she died took as a souvenir a tress of hair that has preserved in a woven bag of lace. A distance of 25 years, the hair is still beautiful.

    The Victorian era was used to create bracelets for children who were given up for adoption. The bracelet was made with a lock of hair of the mother and the child was given as a token of remembrance.

    I wish you all a peaceful day

    A special greeting to my dear Elizabeth
    Veronica

  2. Hi Vicki, what a fabulous post. I clearly remember a container like this of my mom’s. I always wondered why it had a hole, and she didn’t really know. Wow.

    I have seen mourning jewelry in displays at our county fair. They are gorgeously gothic and creepy.

    Good one! oxoxoxoxox

  3. Hi Veronica, Your great grandmother’s hair sounds spectacular, truly her crowning glory. Her family must have thought very highly of her to turn her hair into a treasure.

    I didn’t stumble across the bracelets for adopted chldren in my research, but it strikes me as special and bittersweet. In today’s world, the hair would provide a scientific connection (DNA) as well as an emotional one.

    Thank you for sharing at Wildflower Junction today : )

  4. Hi Tanya, I had the same reaction to the mourning jewelry. At first it struck me as a bit creepy, then I thought a minute. We’re talking about a time when people didn’t have photographs by the hundreds like we do now. A piece of hair would be a real treasure.

  5. Amazing blog, Vicki. I’d heard of this but was never sure quite what was true. After my grandmother passed away about 1960, her children found this big jar of her hair, probably an accumulation of years. Kinda creepy, I know, but the dear woman saved everything.
    My aunt had a hair picture that her grandmother had made from the hair of all her children (I’m assuming it was snipped off live). It was very intricate, with the hair looped and wound around fine wires to make a floral pattern. Quite beautiful in its own way.

  6. Hi Elizabeth! Hair jewelry really does deserve its own blog. The photographs are amazing. From what I saw, most of it is woven so tight you don’t even realize its hair. And the colors! The range is really beautiful.

  7. Fascinating post. I don’t find it gross at all, just strangely fascinating. My grandmother had a few of these jars, but she mainly kept hairpins and other odds and ends in them.

  8. I had never heard of that. It definitely wasn’t the throw away society that we have today. I have two large braids each of both my children’s hair – one thinks it’s gross lol. When I worked I had a boss who wouldn’t let any of the women working under him wear their hair long. I refused to cut it so many days I wore a wig but some days I did put it up and stuffed a black lace head covering (I had dark hair) in the middle to give it a full look. Little did I know there were such things as ratts lol.

  9. Howdy Rebekah! I was really surprised to find out people saved hair this way. It would never have crossed my mind, but it makes good sense.

    Hello Charlene! With all the talk about “green” technology, who’d have thought the Victorian era would have gotten it started! Reusing old hair has to be good for the environment. I have to confess though, I’m still throwing mine out!

  10. Hello, Jeanne! Did you work in a restaurant? That’s the only reason I can think a boss would insist on short hair. I’m actually growing mine out a bit. I’ve had it short for years. Time for a change!

  11. Great discussions going. This is perhaps creepy on its own LOl but somehow related…in the past year, we lost both our black Labs to sudden illnesses, so I cut off a little piece of their fur for remembrance. Icky? Hope not. How I miss them. Not enough for jewelry though.

  12. Hi Tanya, Dogs are such special friends. It’s sweet that you have that remembrance.

    Speaking of Labs, a chocolate Lab got loose in the neighborhood yesterday and ended up in our backyard. Fortunately, we knew where she lived and could bring her home.

  13. It ‘nice to read your comments ^-^.
    I’m Italian so I have some difficulty expressing how I would like but I try to do my best.

    Tania your sweet gesture. I too have many animals and so far I’ve only lost one but I have suffered so much that I cry again today.

  14. hi Veronica, welcome to the Junction from Italy! I so appreciate your good wishes. I can’t believe the terrible grief I feel sometimes. They are still with me in many ways…but I just can’t feel their softness and warmth. Oh, getting weepy.

    Oh Vicki, I’d love a dog to end up on my porch…a stray one LOL. That way I could have one again. Hubby wants to take a break while we heal up, but oh, I miss furry friends! oxoxoxoxxo

  15. Welcome Veronica! You’ve expressed yourself beautifully! A caring heart goes beyond all languages. I’m so sorry you lost an animal that was dear to you. Our pets are wonderful friends.

  16. Hi Tanya, Maybe things will happen for you like they happened for my husband and me. We weren’t ready for a new dog after Chico died (he was 16). Then one night we stumbled into a pet adoption at a PetSmart near Walmart. (That’s a lot of “marts!”) Anyhow, we came home with Hartley, the world’s strangest dog.

  17. Vicki, one of the absolutely great things about P&P is that I’m always learning something new. Like today. I didn’t know Victorian women saved their hair and had uses for it. Wow! That’s amazing. I guess in those days they didn’t throw away too many things. But, I love how they made some of the hair from dead loved ones into jewelry. That reminds me of an article I read in a magazine not too long ago that told about how some people are making jewelry from a loved one’s cremated ashes. That might sound creepy but I’m sure the wearer finds comfort in having their loved one close.

    Thanks for such an interesting blog.

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