Hair Jewelry and Tear Catchers (Oh My!)

23, August 2016
photo of hair bracelet with buckle clasp, ca. 1880.Hair bracelet with buckle clasp, ca. 1880. Missouri Historical Society collections.

The ghosts of the Victorian era's obsession with mourning rituals appear in the material remains of history. Although women's dresses, like those featured in the Little Black Dress exhibit, offer a fascinating perspective on the gradual adoption of fashion trends into mourning wear, the more unfamiliar artifacts, such as hair jewelry and tear catchers, provide a closer look at Victorian mourning customs.

Without film or digital imaging, most families had few ways to remember deceased relatives. Although daguerreotypes and similar photographic techniques were rising in popularity, most Victorian families crafted more tangible relics from the corpse of a beloved. The most common artifact was hair jewelry, an artifact that usually makes people cringe slightly as they picture prickly, dirty hair tucked behind glass plates and mounted onto a brooch. While these did exist, I've had the opportunity to discover how hair from the deceased was transformed into works of art. 

pieces of mourning jewelry made with hair, 1880sExamples of mourning jewelry made with hair. Left: hair necklace with heart-shaped pendant, 1850–1880; right: hair drop earrings, ca. 1880. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Hair jewelry was a fairly inexpensive accessory that could easily be designed to fit fashions. Women’s magazines and self-instruction manuals began to include tutorials and patterns for detailed hair jewelry pieces. Women and adolescent girls formed craft circles to work on hair jewelry together, which built community within a domestic setting.

The hair jewelry pieces included in the Little Black Dress exhibit have little known history attached to them, but the detail of the objects speaks to the relationships of the owners. The first item, a necklace with netted beads and a heart pendant, all made from hair, fooled me at first glance. The way in which the hair has been woven into beads looks like a mechanically produced piece of jewelry that might sit on store shelves today. The other pieces, drop earrings and a bracelet, had a similar effect. The dedication to detail conveys the love and loyalty to the deceased, given that such pieces would take a considerable amount of time and patience to create. 

a glass tube resembling a tear catcherSomeone in mourning would use a lachyrymatory such as this to catch their tears. Date unknown. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Another interesting and uncommon artifact is a lachrymatory, or tear catcher. These streamlined flasks resemble perfume bottles but differ in that the mouth is funneled to catch tears and the rim is flattened at one edge to fit comfortably beneath the eye. We happened to locate one in our collections, mistakenly labeled as a perfume bottle. However, it has turned into a frustrating mystery, as it appears the item was a souvenir of the World’s Fair in 1904. The shape, however, is unmistakable. As for many other items, we must take on the role of detective and do our best digging. Various sources confirm the design of the tear catcher, but the question of its connection to the World’s Fair remains a mystery still to be solved.

—Kami Ahrens, former Museum Intern

This post has been edited and abbreviated from its original appearance on October 3, 2014.

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