Hairwork jewelry of the early Victorian period (1837-1860) sometimes served as mourning jewelry, made from the hair of and worn to honor a recently departed loved one. But often people gave brooches or bracelets made from hair simply as a sentimental token of love or friendship.
Hair artistry reached its peak during the 1840s and 1850s. Skillful hair creation numbered among the accomplishments of a proper young woman. Godey’s Lady’s Book published patterns for hairwork bracelets. People could also have their hair fashioned into jewelry by a professional jeweler. Linherr and Company of New York offered a full line of bracelets, brooches, and necklaces made to order from hair supplied by the customer.
The hair used to make the jewelry shown above came from Caroline Gaston. We know a great deal about Caroline’s husband Amnon Gaston — and by extension a little bit about Caroline — from Amnon’s hand-written, two-volume autobiography. The autobiography is part of the Madison County Historical Society’s collection at the Madison County Archival Library.
As a young man living in central New York, Amnon Gaston wondered what to do with his life. He studied and taught at religious institutions (including the Oneida Institute) and contemplated entering the ministry. He fell in love with a woman named Susan Lowe, who shared his interest in teaching and ministry. Amnon and Susan got engaged in the summer of 1834, postponing marriage until Amnon finished his studies. In the meantime, Susan went to Cincinnati to teach in the black community there.
Susan and Amnon exchanged letters over the next two years. Amnon had no inkling that Susan’s feelings had changed until he suddenly received a letter from a friend saying that Susan had married someone else. The news crushed the 26-year-old Amnon.
Amnon stuck with his studies and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in February of 1837. Six months later he married Caroline Sumner. The couple left the day after the wedding for Whiteside County, Illinois, where Amnon’s father lived. They rented a tiny one-room log cabin that Amnon describes as “miserable … without cellar, chamber, pantry, bedroom, fireplace, or cooking stove.”
Amnon’s autobiography makes little mention of his wife. Fresh from a broken heart, he may have married Caroline more to meet social expectations than out of true love. It is easy to imagine that Caroline had a lonely life as a 22-year-old newlywed keeping house in a dismal cabin, her husband over 100 miles away on a preaching circuit that included Gap Grove, Buffalo Grove, and Sterling. The couple had two children before moving to Wisconsin in 1841, where their third child was born. Amnon died in 1849 at the age of 40. Caroline and the kids moved back to New York within a year after his death.
These three pieces of hairwork may have been made as mourning jewelry, but none of them bear inscriptions explicitly indicating this use. The date of Caroline’s death is uncertain, but sources suggest she died in the 1850s. A note accompanying the items indicates that one of the brooches also contains hair from Caroline’s oldest child, Susannah, who died in 1867 at the age of 29. The Madison County Historical Society received the jewelry from the estate of Dr. John Noble Shaff and Mrs. Josephine Shaff (née Gaston, Caroline’s granddaughter), of Alton, Illinois.
Jewelry containing hair
By the mid-Victorian period (1860-1895), jewelry made of hair had gone out of style. Instead, people sentimental about the hair of loved ones simply preserved the locks inside a brooch or pendant designed to safeguard it. This little oval brooch contains the hair of Emma Roth (née Kuhnen) beneath the glass on one face. Emma’s hair has been woven into a tight grid that fills the space. The brooch swivels to display a design of blue flowers in gold-toned foliage on the other side.
Emma was born in 1849 to parents who had emigrated from Switzerland. Like many other Swiss immigrants, they settled in Highland, Illinois. She died in 1911.
Sources consulted for this article include United States and New York census records, and the following additional sources:
Bell, C. Jeanenne. Answers to Questions about Old Jewelry: Covers 1840-1950. 6th ed. Iola: Kraus Publications, 2003.
Cox, Caroline. Vintage Jewelry Design: Classics to Collect & Wear. New York: Lark Crafts, 2010.
Druitt, Silvia. Antique Personal Possessions. Poole: Blandford Press, 1980.
Flower, Margaret. Victorian Jewellery. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1951.
Gaston, Amnon. Autobiography in two volumes, 1844-1849. Manuscript. Madison County Historical Society item 2006-034-0132/0133. This handwritten account by Gaston of his life describes his work as a preacher, his despair after Susan ends their engagement, a rift with his father over religion and money, and the dying process as he battles consumption.
Harris, Roland. “A Thought to Remember: Willis Draper to Celebrate His 100th Birthday.” News Leader [Highland, Illinois]. January 15, 2015.