Keeping Grandma’s Hair – Interview with world-renowned Victorian Hair Artist

My obsession and interest in genealogy far outreaches just finding long-lost ancestors and family trees. As a death positive person, I’m interested in any topic, art, or post that is about death. This interest really came to head when last September (2017), I attended the Death Salon in Seattle and met Courtney Lane.

Courtney Lane

Courtney is a Victorian hair artist who just happened to be at the same conference that I was out. Not only was Courtney interested in death, we had another connection — both of us have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

A miniature hair wreath in a 3×5 shadowbox

Last fall, before all the craziness of my life blew into town, I asked Courtney if she would be willing to do an interview for Hipster Historian and she agreed. So look no farther, here is Courtney Lane:

What is Never Forgotten?

Never Forgotten is the business I began which centers around Victorian Hairwork.  Hairwork includes any artwork or jewelry that is made out of hair and is usually made for sentimental purposes.  For hundreds of years, hairwork was given as a romantic gesture, used as a sentimental token amongst friends and family, and even used to commemorate deceased loved ones.

Today, sadly, many people consider hairwork to be a lost art and most people I meet have never even heard of it.  By creating new sentimental hairwork on a custom basis, educating others of the unusual history behind the art-form, and teaching classes and workshops on hairwork techniques, I hope to help give this art-form a new life and ensure that it’s Never Forgotten. I had been studying the art-form for a number of years before I ever decided to practice it, and believe it or not, at the time I decided to start Never Forgotten, I was running an insurance agency.

“Nice ring! What kind of stone is that?”
“Oh, this? It’s 150-year-old human hair.”

The company whose insurance products I sold in my agency was less than kind to me, and after putting me through an unforgivable series of events, I knew I couldn’t stay with them.  My thought process was basically, “Hmm, do I take my insurance license elsewhere and sell products from a different company? Do I seek employment in an unrelated field? Nope, better try to resurrect an industry that hasn’t been popular in over 100 years!”  It was simultaneously the most precarious and wonderful decision I’ve ever made.

How did you get started?

I wish I had a magnificent story about the first time I discovered my love of hairwork, but I really don’t. I must have been exposed to the idea of hairwork as a child because I just always remember knowing about it.  From a young age, I began loving history and the macabre.  I was always eager to explore a new museum, and one of my favorite childhood memories was visiting the famous “above ground” cemetery in New Orleans at age 6 or 7.  As I grew older, realizing things I admired, such as mourning hairwork, were considered bizarre and creepy only strengthened my curiosities and fueled my passion for teaching others about the “weird” side of history.

Made of horse hair!

What advice would you give to others?

My advice is to find your passion and find your people.  History and Death are topics that go hand in hand and can be considered strange or taboo by the general public.  Whether you’re “the one that’s obsessed with death” or the “that girl that makes stuff out of dead people’s hair” you can get a lot of criticism from people who don’t understand it.  Finding a community that understands your passions can help empower you to pursue them in a meaningful way.

Why is death important to you?

We live in a culture that hides every aspect of death.  As soon as someone dies, the body is often taken away immediately, and the grieving family is expected to mourn privately and be back to work as if nothing happened in just a couple of days.  Back in the Victorian era, the bodies were usually cared for in the home, and elaborate, public mourning was an expected social norm. Even though the strict Victorian pressures of mourning for a year or longer are not what I would have in a perfect society, I do believe that many people today do not mourn in a healthy way.  When we mourn, we should feel empowered to mourn in whatever way we need. We should feel like it’s OK to spend some time with the body of our deceased loved ones, we should feel like it’s OK to talk about how we’re not actually OK, and we should feel like it’s OK to cut a lock of hair to keep as a tangible relic of those we’ve lost.

Although I had been practicing various techniques prior, this human hair cross was my first finished and framed piece I made to launch my business

Tell us a story about your research

 

While some hairwork was done DIY by (usually women) in the family, mail order hairwork did begin to grow as an industry.  Some independent hairworkers teamed up with independent jewelers to offer hair jewelry, but other large companies began to see the potential in offering sentimental hairwork.  One such company was, in fact, Sears, Roebuck.

Everyone recognizes Sears, but what may don’t know is that Sears began offering mail order hair chains through their catalogs in 1896.  However, in the year 1908, they disclosed, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee the same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.”  Now considering the sentimental nature of hairwork, It’s easy to imagine the public anger and distrust toward the company and custom hairwork as an industry that followed.

As someone who regularly works with the hair of my clients dear loved ones and knows how much it means to them, I can’t even imagine sending someone a stranger’s hair and keeping the hair of their loved ones to send to someone else.  It completely defeats the purpose! I’d like to think that karma from deceiving their clients about mail order hairwork all those years ago is the real reason why they’re going out of business today, and the vengeful part of me smiles a little bit when I pass by the empty lot that used to be a Sears in my hometown.

 

What is your favorite thing about history?

I love all the layers there are to uncover when you’re studying history.  At first glance, it’s always easy to laugh about the weird customs and creations of people from the past, but when you really dig deep and try to find their motivations and societal trends, you find that they weren’t always so different from us after all.  Learning about the past can help put the present into perspective, and when you begin to understand the past, it’s easy to determine what’s really important to you.  For me, thinking about the past, the present, life, and death helps me live my life best life.

If you liked this interview, let us know in the comments below. Who else would you like interviewed? Message us to let us know!

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