In July 1884, a newspaper story shared an insider scoop on a special object in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections: visitors could see “the only relics of the bodies of our chief magistrates.”
These were not traditional saintly relics, ancient bones kept in elaborate reliquaries. Rather, the reporter had seen the framed display containing the locks of hair that had come from the heads of the first 14 American presidents.
Only 18- and a-half inches tall and 13-inches wide, the elaborately framed display (zoomable image in the link) entitled "Hair of the Presidents, Washington, D.C., 1855" was a popular feature in the fledgling national museum. “There was nothing that struck us so forcibly,” a writer for the 1858 Wilmington Journal reported. Popular Victorian writer Fanny Fern described the peculiar artifact at length after a visit to Washington in the 1860s, calling it “quite novel.”
But quirky as it may seem to us, human hair keepsakes were in fact quite common during the 19th century. Cut hair does not decay or lose its color, so it was commonly exchanged in art and jewelry as a steadfast memory of a lost loved one. Locks of hair were often exchanged as a gifts between family or friends. In 1827, artist Gilbert Stuart gave his mother a miniature of himself that was mounted on a bracelet crafted from his own hair woven together with that of his wife’s. (The work is now among the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)
The brainchild behind the collection of locks of hair of the nation’s first 14 commanders-in-chief was an early Smithsonian curator by the name of John Varden.
Hailing from a former life in the theater, Varden had a flair for drama and a passion for historical relics. Little is known about his quest to obtain the hair of each president. No records exist detailing his methodology. But we do know that he began his project in earnest beginning in 1850, by which time many of the early presidents had died. So he would have had to seek out friends or family members to make his request for locks of hair. He traveled widely, so it's possible he paid visits to the descendants from time to time or he wrote polite requests.
Varden was not the first to systematically collect presidential hair. In the 1840s, a Philadelphia lawyer, one Peter Arvell Browne, began filling scrapbooks of hair taken from the heads of notable men (ranging from presidents to Pacific Islanders to signers of the Declaration of Independence). Browne’s correspondence with the descendants of his hair lock collection is still in extent, suggesting that Varden likely employed the same tactic.
It’s also possible that Varden may have pinched locks of hair from similar relics at the U.S. Patent Office. These would have been collected by others who, like him, placed a high value on presidential hair. Friends and family members who owned these illustrious locks may well have donated tiny bundles of hair to the Patent Office collection. Smithsonian curator emeritus Larry Bird, who has done extensive research on the Varden's keepsake masterpiece, has no reason to doubt the hair’s authenticity.
Varden, ever the showman, knew he had something and by 1853 began offering opportunities to the public for viewing his presidential hair clippings, before donating the assemblage to the national historical collection, which at the time was housed at the Patent Office building.
Visitors in the late 19th century weren’t entirely convinced, though; Fanny Fern slyly suggested one couldn’t dare imagine that anybody had “wickedly substitut[ed] something else for the original coveted article.”
Varden’s elaborate construction for his collection provided an appealing setting for the treasured hair. Mounting each lock on a small black backing, it was secured within a grid of gold-framed rectangles. Below the precious lock, a label noted name, birth, election and death date of each presidential donor as well as the time he served in office.
While some of the locks of hair are in attractive loops or thick bundles, it appears Varden had trouble getting decent samples for many of the presidents.
An 1873 article in Godey’s Lady’s Book criticized his earnest effort as having “a few spears o’ hair in a bunch…It would be hard to tell the color of any of ‘em, there’s so little in a bunch.”
Fanny Fern joked that perhaps the presidents “were not liberally endowed with this commodity” or they were too cautious about sharing their hair. However, other writers of the time enthused on the hair display, carefully describing the color and texture of each bundle.
In 1883, Varden’s masterpiece officially became part of the Smithsonian Institution. The occasion was a bureaucratic transfer of the collections at the U.S. Patent Office Building to the National Museum in the now-shuttered Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall. Vardon’s "Hair of the Presidents" took its place in a glass case beneath the building's soaring ceilings, among artifacts of an aspiring nation, recording its history on topics ranging from agriculture to mineralogy to stamps.
Soon after its transfer there, a story titled “Washington Gossip” in Harper’s Bazaar reported that a few interested parties discussed updating the hair collection to include the present-day commander-in-chief Chester A. Arthur.
But no one stepped up to championed the cause. Time marched on, and by the 20th century, the notion of saving hair of the deceased passed out of fashion—and even into the realm of appearing morbid and disturbing. Varden’s erstwhile effort thus became the stuff of history.
Today housed at the National Museum of American History, Varden’s piece enjoyed a brief place in the limelight again in 2013, when it made an appearance in the museum’s exhibition and its accompanying catalog Souvenir Nation.
No longer a quasi-sacred relic, these simple wisps of hair now tell us more about the peculiarities of 19th century American culture than the presidents from whence they came.