The “Hairy Eagle,” as it was dubbed more than 150 years ago, stuns all who see it, probably because the wreath is made entirely from human hair. And not just any hair. It was woven with tresses provided by President Abraham Lincoln, his vice president and cabinet members, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and numerous United States senators, as well as First Lady Mary Lincoln and three cabinet members’ wives—37 people in all. Measuring roughly a foot in diameter, the eagle-adorned artwork is accompanied by an index showing exactly whose hair was used for each section of the sculpture.
“This piece is just astounding,” says Robert Searing, a curator at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) in Syracuse, New York, which houses the relic. “The first time I saw it, my jaw hit the floor; I couldn’t believe it. First of all, the fact that it is human hair, and that it is so incredibly well-crafted. And then obviously, as a historian, as somebody who has a deep affection for Abraham Lincoln … words escape me. … There’s not another item like this anywhere as far as we know. And the provenance is indisputable.”
Commissioned as a fundraising tool for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a quasi-governmental agency run by volunteers seeking to ensure the health and safety of Union soldiers, the wreath was displayed prominently at the Metropolitan Fair, a charity event held in New York City in April 1864. Guests paid $1 for the opportunity to sign their names in a book accompanying the artifact. The goal was to raise $1,000. At the close of the fair, the wreath was to be presented to the Lincolns as a keepsake.
But the Hairy Eagle never made its way to the White House. Instead, it hung in a Brooklyn shop window, then was displayed at another fair before disappearing for decades. In the 1920s, the family of the man who’d made the wreath donated it to the OHA; since then, this unique piece of history has only been displayed publicly three times. It remains a basically unknown Civil War relic that is, literally, priceless.
“We have other Lincoln artifacts in our collection, including his signature, but none provide such a personal connection in my opinion as the Hairy Eagle,” says OHA executive director Gregg Tripoli. “… It is as if a once living and growing piece of the actual man himself survives in a spectacularly patriotic image.”
An ornate wreath made completely of human hair may sound strange, even disgusting, to contemporary observers. But in the 19th century, making decorative hair ornaments for display in one’s home or use as jewelry was common practice, with the relics often serving as reminders of deceased loved ones. Museums and historical societies across the U.S. still hold hair wreaths, brooches, rings, artworks and framed clippings of human hair for visitors to marvel at. As historian Helen Sheumaker explains in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, “Hairwork asserted the importance of the individual in a physical and an emotional way. And it worked. Today when we encounter hairwork in the odd bit of jewelry on display at a museum … we confront a relic of the living, breathing reality of someone long deceased. Because these scraps of hair were saved to remember someone, we behold that person’s self through a fragment of the body.”
At the time of the Metropolitan Fair in 1864, no one’s hair—or handshake, signature or piece of clothing—was more coveted than Lincoln’s, the president who’d sustained the United States through three years of war. This trend continued long after the commander-in-chief’s assassination in April 1865: In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt wore a ring containing a lock of Lincoln’s hair at his second inauguration. And, between 2015 and 2020, three separate Lincoln locks fetched between $25,000 and $81,000 at auction.
So, how did this hair relic come to be? According to news reports, it was the brainchild of Louisa Wright, wife of former Indiana Governor Joseph A. Wright. She designed the wreath; commissioned Brooklyn firm Spies & Champney, manufacturer of “fine gold and hair jewelry,” to create it; and presented it to the fair’s organizers to be used as a fundraiser.
Spies & Champney began the process by requesting locks of hair from all planned participants. The company’s letter to Lincoln, dated January 12, 1864, is preserved in the president’s papers at the Library of Congress. “[W]e are now engaged in getting up a Fair in our goodly city of Churches for the benefit of the sanitary Commission … and it suggested itself to us that if you would allow us we could work up a lock of your hair in some national device,” the missive reads. “… [I]f you feel favorably disposed please send us by mail as large a lock as you can well spare.”
Though the president’s response is not part of the Lincoln papers, he clearly agreed to give a donation. The letter from Spies & Champney wasn’t the only request of its kind sent that year. A second, also written on behalf of the Metropolitan Fair, arrived just ten days later, followed by a third on February 13 asking for a donation to the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, a separate event that similarly supported the Sanitary Commission.
Finally, in early April, the president received a fourth letter requesting a lock of hair to be used in “a magnificent loyal National Hair Wreath” and sold as a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair. A postscript dated April 8 says, “We have just seen that yourself and other distinguished gentlemen contributed to a magnificent attraction, the Bird of liberty & a wreath for the New [Y]ork Fair— Nevertheless we must not relax because a similar good is already in process of development.”
No existing evidence indicates that Lincoln complied with the Philadelphia petitioners’ request, and no other wreaths containing verified strands of Lincoln’s hair woven into a design are known to exist today. (The Illinois State Museum does have a wreath purported to contain Lincoln’s hair, made by one of his Springfield neighbors in the 1850s, but the provenance is from oral tradition only and therefore unverified, according to Erika Holst, the museum’s curator of history.)
When the Spies & Champney hair wreath debuted on April 4, it immediately emerged as one of the fair’s highlights, not only because it was such a unique work of art, but because it contained the hair of the most important politicians in the United States. Contributors included the Lincolns, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Mrs. Welles, Attorney General Edward Bates and Mrs. Bates, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Mrs. Blair, Interior Secretary John P. Usher, and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax. Twenty-three senators, including Andrew Johnson and Charles Sumner, also donated locks.
The eagle’s head was made from Lincoln’s hair, its back from Hamlin’s hair, its beak from Chase’s hair (symbolizing greenbacks and other bills), and its wings from the various senators’ hair. The wives’ hair, meanwhile, was used to create the “floral” arrangement surmounted by the eagle and globe.
In the New York Times’ words, the wreath was composed of “locks black, brown, grey, and red, curls, wiry, straight and otherwise.” This “really beautiful ornament,” the newspaper continued, would eventually “possess great interest as a historical memento.” The British Spectator added, “There is something very quaint in this notion of presenting the American Eagle with personal scraps of all the politicians who compose this republican group, as keepsakes, we suppose, or tender memorials of their energetic efforts to save the Republic.”
The Metropolitan Fair was one of numerous such charity events held in major Northern cities between 1863 and 1865. All shared the goal of raising funds for the Sanitary Commission, whose volunteers inspected military hospitals and collected donations of clothing, blankets, food, and medical supplies for military personnel, nurses, and injured or disabled soldiers. The New York fair was different than the others in that it was the biggest and grandest of its kind held during the war, ultimately raising $1.1 million to support sick and wounded soldiers.
Running for three weeks in April 1864, the fair featured events, attractions, auctions, raffles and more. For an entry fee of $2 ($1 on opening day), visitors could view spectacular floral arrangements in the Temple of Flora, watch dances performed by the fair’s Native American Troupe, enjoy Dutch cuisine at the Knickerbocker Kitchen and even buy a piece of Plymouth Rock.
“But this wonder of eclecticism was eclipsed by the famous ‘hairy eagle’ which hung from one of the heavy piers near the Floral Temple,” as the Sanitary Commission later wrote in its official report on the fair. “This eagle was destined for the President, and a subscription book was kept open at a stand just under the eagle. It was so popular that four hundred dollars were subscribed within the first three days of the Fair.”
Such lots of curiosities
I never saw before:
One lady fair invited me
To view her wonders o’er:
She charged me just a dollar,
And I paid her on the square,
For to see the hair eagle
At the Sanitary Fair.
Tens of thousands of people visited the Hairy Eagle during its time on view—but whether the fundraiser brought in the desired $1,000 remains unknown. Also unclear is why the Hairy Eagle never came into the Lincolns’ possession. What is known is that Spies & Champney kept the wreath and used it for business promotion, exhibiting it in September 1865 at the American Institute’s annual fair and displaying it in their Brooklyn shop window that winter. The business’ owners even bought advertisements in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle encouraging people who missed seeing the Hairy Eagle at the fairs to visit it at their shop.
After 1865, mentions of the Hairy Eagle disappear from newspaper reports. But F.T. Champney, one half of the Spies & Champney team, appears to have kept the item as a family heirloom. When Champney died, his wife, Ida, moved upstate to Syracuse and brought the Hairy Eagle with her. Ida donated the piece—along with an accompanying key noting the locations and provenance of all the hair in the wreath—to the Onondaga Historical Association sometime before her death in 1923.
No OHA records of the acquisition survive, but one undated newspaper clipping in the OHA archives calls Ida’s gift “both historic and extremely artistic,” adding, “There is no better specimen of patience and wonderful intricate weaving.”
According to OHA curator Thomas H. Hunter, the wreath has never been loaned out to another organization. A man alleging to own an article of Lincoln’s bloodstained clothing once requested to remove some of the president’s hair from the sculpture for a DNA test, but as Hunter recalls with a droll smile, “I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”
Encased in a wood frame covered with convex glass, the Hairy Eagle’s reverse is covered with plaster of Paris. “Basically, it’s hermetically sealed; there’s never been any examination of [the wreath],” Hunter says. “If it were opened now, the deterioration process would be exponentially accelerated. … I would never want to chance that.”
The last time the Hairy Eagle was displayed publicly was in February 2019, on the 210th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Since then, the wreath has been safely stored in the association’s collections, awaiting its next opportunity to reemerge.