Hair, Death, and Memory: The Making of an American Relic
2. Shaping the American Cultural Imagination: Stowe’s Blond Relic and the Patron Saint of Abolition in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
In painting and literature, as well as in their popular culture, they discovered in the image of women’s hair a variety of rich and complex meanings, ascribing to it powers both magical and symbolic…Silent, the larger-than-life woman who dominated the literature and art of that period used her hair to weave her discourse…(, p. 936)
While women’s hair, particularly when it is golden, has always been a Western preoccupation, for the Victorians it became an obsession...When the powerful woman of the Victorian imagination was an angel, her shining hair was her aureole or bower; when she was demonic, it became a glittering snare, web, or noose.(, p. 936)
“…I want to give you something that, when you look at, you shall always remember me, I’m going to give all of you a curl of my hair; and when you look at it, think that I loved you and am gone to heaven, and that I want to see you all there”.
3. Abraham Lincoln: The Making of an American Relic (1864)
4. Patron Saint of Abolition: Little Eva and President Lincoln
5. Changing Perspectives on the Cultural Meaning of Lincoln’s Funeral Rituals
Embodying society’s cherished ideals, mundane objects and undistinguished people thus come to be respected or revered. I show, however, how Lincoln became an object of intense mourning at a time when most people held him in mixed or low regard. It becomes apparent that Lincoln’s case is one of many in which positive rituals are enacted independently of negative beliefs about their object.(, p. 344)
After Lincoln’s official funeral was concluded at the Capitol, his body was removed to the train station in the presence of a massive crowd…There was no reason to believe this meticulously contrived procession would spontaneously turn into the most striking state ritual that Americans had ever witnessed or would ever witness again.(, p. 347)
6. Conclusions: Reinvesting in the Cultural Imaginary
References and Notes
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- 1The hair bouquet was finally inherited by Mrs. Hamlin’s granddaughter, who sold it to a collector. The granddaughter guessed that this hairwork was created by Fanny Cooper, a close friend of Mrs. Hamlin, but there is no documentation to indicate the name of the artist .
- 2According to F. K. Prochaska, the sale of fancywork became an acceptable practice in Great Britain during the early nineteenth-century, and it quickly spread to America (, pp. 49–50, 53).
- 3Helen Sheumaker makes a similar claim about the function of hairworks in America (, pp. xiv–xv).
- 4Sheumaker’s work has attained broad scholarly consensus in its characterization of hairworks as secular, sentimental objects, as well as its positioning of hairworks in “moral market culture” (, p. 5). Sheumaker describes the cultural stakes involved in the purchase of hairworks: “one’s successful integration of the emotional attitude of sentiment through the action of selecting and purchasing a good on the market” (, p. 5). Michelle Iwen reiterates the conjunction of sentimentalism and consumerism in hairworks (, pp. 246–47). Iwen also reinforces the secular and romantic meaning of these artifacts; demonstrating their distinction from religious relics of an earlier era (, p. 247). Teresa Barnett has recently challenged this view. Barnett suggests that modern scholars have missed “a sensibility in which the relic could have meaning” (, p. 3) in America. However, Stowe’s deliberate creation of Eva’s relic-like hair seems to exceed the examples in Barnett’s study because Stowe was deliberately moving beyond the limits of sentimentalism. Furthermore, despite the title, Barnett’s definition of the American relic seems to be relatively secular. For example, Reverend Bentley’s collection of early American memorabilia discussed in the first chapter has no overt religious significance (, pp. 13–15). By contrast, Stowe’s treatment of hair is explicitly spiritual in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- 5Ronald Walters seems to articulate the scholarly consensus when he states that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only had a “substantial readership” (, p. 172) but also the ability “to bring a controversial message to a large audience in a powerful and compelling fashion” (, p. 172). Whether or not Stowe’s fiction actually changed society, her works were recognized as influential reform literature in her lifetime (, pp. 171–73).
- 6For two decades, Gitter’s article has been a central text in the scholarly conversation about the cultural work of hair in the nineteenth-century. Various scholars have utilized her arguments without displacing her foundational article; for example, Joann Pitman quotes Gitter extensively in her recent book Blondes.
- 7Eva’s words recall the language of Christ as he institutes the Last Supper in the Gospel of Luke: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The relationship between Eva’s hair and the Eucharist will be discussed at length later in the paper.
- 8The Museum of Funeral Customs articulates the importance of spectacle in Victorian mourning rituals; the primary role of hair and jewelry in the Victorian era was the public display of bereavement: “The Victorian Era (1837–1901), by contrast, turned the entire ritual of mourning into a public display, and the jewelry changed accordingly, becoming larger, heavier, and more obvious.” (, p. 1) Scholars such as Sheumaker have established the sentimental meaning of hairworks in American culture (, pp. 1–3).
- 9Carolyn Karcher lauds the religious fervor of Little Eva as a powerful rhetorical strategy that had a potentially universal humanistic appeal: “Stowe’s crowning achievement lay in infusing Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the religious fervor that gave the novel its irresistible power. By wrapping her anti-slavery message in evangelical garb, Stowe succeeded in reaching ‘a much larger class of readers…’ as Lydia Maria Child remarked wryly. Yet readers of other religious persuasions—Unitarians, Quakers, Catholics, and even freethinkers and devotees of non-western faiths—found themselves no less moved by Uncle Tom’s and Eva’s sacrificial deaths and the core belief they symbolized: that men and women willing to lay down their lives for a cause could transform their fellows and ultimately the world” (, p. 208).
- 10Also see Sheumaker (, pp. 1–4).
- 11Religious connotations of the blond Eva were most popular in visual culture, according to Jo-Ann Morgan (, p. 11). Visual reproductions, including playbills, paintings, and illustration reinforce religious nature of Eva’s blond hair in the cultural imagination.
- 12See Fennetaux (, pp. 33–35).
- 13This essay utilizes the New Catholic Encyclopedia for a description of the life and acts of Saint Clare of Assisi .
- 14When Eva hears her father and Miss Ophelia discussing slavery, she bursts into tears and tells him “these things sink into my heart” (, p. 258); even after she stops crying her face continues to “twitch” (, p. 258). This twitching could be interpreted as evidence that Eva’s body is physically afflicted by the institution of slavery. Soon after this episode, Tom notices Eva’s increasing weakness (, p. 282)—slavery is killing her. Elizabeth Ammons states: “The child identifies with the slaves’ misery, telling Tom finally: ‘…I would die for them, Tom, if I could’. On the figurative level—the only level on which Eva makes sense—she gets her wish. Stowe contrives her death to demonstrate that there is no life for a pure, Christ-like spirit in the corrupt plantation economy the book attacks” (, pp. 168–69).
- 15Sheumaker claims that hairworks were distinctly Euro-American cultural artifacts: “Many non-European cultures shunned, and still avoid, the decorative use of human hair that has been detached from the head and is intended for a use other than augmenting one’s remaining hair. Most Native American groups most African Americans, and Asian Americans had, and have, cultural and religious prohibitions against using human hair in the memorial fashion of Euro-American ornamental hairwork” (, p. xiii). Thus, the very use of a hairwork in Stowe’s novel is ethnically distinctive.
- 16Gitter uses the courtship correspondence of the Brownings to demonstrate the intensely intimate nature of a request for hair: “Robert Browning asks for ‘what I have always dared to think I would ask you for…one day! Give me…who never dreamed of being worth such a gift…give me so much of you—all precious that you are—as may be given in a lock of your hair’…(Elizabeth Barrett replies), ‘I never gave away what you ask me to give you, to a human being, except my nearest relatives and once or twice or thrice to female friends…’” (, p. 943).
- 17On 12 January 1864, Spies and Champney request a lock of hair for the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair. James Penfield also writes regarding a Sanitary Fair to be held in Brooklyn. Although it is likely the same fair, that fact is unclear in the wording of the requests. They seem to be referring to two different events held in Brooklyn, one organized by the New England department (Penfield) and one organized by an affiliation of Churches . If it is the same fair, the notes on the bottom of each of these requests may indicate that Lincoln donated a single lock of hair to the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair rather than two locks of hair.
- 18This study modifies and builds upon the idea of the American relic that Teresa Barnett develops in Sacred Relics: Pieces of the Past in Nineteenth-Century America. Barnett demonstrates the proliferation of objects that offer a specific connection with the past. However, this connection does not seem to be particularly religious or spiritual in nature (such as the collection of John Fanning Watson) (, pp. 16–18). The hair requests here, made during Lincoln’s life, are also distinct from the material distributed after his assassination, which Barnett mentions in her Introduction (, pp. 6–7).
- 19See the appendix for all the transcripts from the hair requests. Three of the six are available.
- 20This poetic phrase in the midst of a prosaic note seems to be alluding to the Victorian mythology about blond hair.
- 22In the Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry, C. Jeanenne Bell identifies a few celebrated British women who received hair requests early in the century, prior to the Victorian Era (, pp. 8–10). American author Fanny Fern also refers to hair requests in the autobiographical novel published in the 1850s, Ruth Hall. In the novel, Fern describes the intimate, imagined connection that developed between author Ruth Hall and her readers. This assumption of intimacy resulted in a massive amount of fan mail, which includes marriage proposals from strangers and hair requests. However, it is difficult to determine if Fanny Fern (Sara Willis) actually received hair requests. Furthermore, all these examples involve women with whom the public developed an imagined intimacy; there is no record of any men receiving similar requests.
- 23Sheumaker claims that the world of sentimental hairworks was a “minefield of possible missteps for many men” (, p. 136). Thus, it is unlikely that men, especially men with carefully crafted public personas, would ever offer their hair for a hairwork to be sold at a public auction.
- 24In the request from Philadelphia, the proposed hairwreath is described as a “free will offering”, a term that appears frequently in the Bible (see Exodus 36:3), but this note lacks the religious sentiment of Howell’s hair request.
- 25After Lincoln’s death, more than one individual referred to mementos from the president as “sacred relics” (, p. 6). However, this study analyzes hair requests that Lincoln received before his “sanctifying” death.
- 26Franklin makes it clear that the Emancipation Proclamation was not met with unanimous acclaim (, p. 204). Radical republicans were disappointed with its limitations while other politicians feared that it would provoke the loyal border states to join the confederacy (, pp. 200–1). Despite negative reactions from both the right and the left, Franklin still claims that this proclamation impacted the national understanding of the Civil War (, p. 204).
- 27The price paid for Lincoln’s manuscript validates the Philadelphia request, which claims the hairwreath made with the President’s hair would be sold for $1000.
- 28Ashley Byock directly links the conceptualization of soldiers’ deaths in nurses’ memoirs with “the structures and iconography of antebellum sentimental narratives like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (, p. 160). However, these narratives are primarily published after the hair requests in the Lincoln archives, and they do not include the taking of hair or other relics from the dead. Rather, sentimental novels offer nurses and the American public a way to view and understand death.
- 29The problematic racialized meaning of Lincoln’s body is accentuated by the practice of hairworks, which Sheumaker identifies as a distinctly Euro-American art form. According to Sheumaker, this exclusion exceeds market forces that ignore anyone outside the white middle-class (, pp. 2–3). Sheumaker claims that religious and cultural taboos made the art of hairworking unacceptable for African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans in the United States (, p. xiii).
- 30Wilentz clearly identifies Lincoln’s assassination as the action that immortalized him in American culture (, p. xi).
- 31The embalming of Lincoln’s body changed the American attitude towards embalming. According to the Museum of Funeral Customs, the funeral journey “introduced embalming to a broad audience and popularized the procedure” (, p. 1).
- 32Prior to Lincoln’s assassination, no other American was laid in state. The cities where Lincoln lay in state are: Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Philadelphia, PA, New York, NY; Albany, NY; Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Columbus, OH; Indianapolis, IN; Chicago, IL; Springfield, IL. The decision to have twelve viewings of the body would have been not only unprecedented, but excessive, unless the funeral rituals planned for Lincoln were a part of a continuum of reverence for the president that began during his lifetime.
- 33The sentimental reaction to Lincoln’s embalming may also illustrate the novelty of this practice in mid-century America. According to Craughwell, the embalmer’s bill was returned with “This was done and well done” written across the top (, p. 9).
- 34Herbert Mitgang describes how Lincoln utilized emblematic political cartoons, as well as portraits, to “arouse enthusiasm” (, p. 8) and gain public recognition.
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Heiniger, A. Hair, Death, and Memory: The Making of an American Relic. Humanities 2015, 4, 334-352. https://doi.org/10.3390/h4030334
Heiniger A. Hair, Death, and Memory: The Making of an American Relic. Humanities. 2015; 4(3):334-352. https://doi.org/10.3390/h4030334Chicago/Turabian Style
Heiniger, Abigail. 2015. "Hair, Death, and Memory: The Making of an American Relic" Humanities 4, no. 3: 334-352. https://doi.org/10.3390/h4030334