Hair has long been used as a memento, a physical means of remembrance, of someone gone or separated by distance.
But why would you find this in a government archive?
An archive is inevitably a hive of the unexpected, but being asked to write about locks of physical hair in our holdings was my most unexpected challenge yet.
As I started my search I had no idea what I might find.
Locks in the archive
Samples of hair make their way into our collections in the most curious of ways. Chancery proceedings against jewellers commissioned to make rings hold long-forgotten letters of clients with the locks of hair still present, carefully folded in the letter. Or they find their way into personal papers where a child’s curl of hair might have been preserved as a memory of youth. A sample of hair even makes it to the crash report of an aircraft in Belgium, 30 May 1940, reporting the deaths of the inhabitants (AIR 81/696).
But why was hair preserved? Before popular photography, hair provided a keepsake and a memory, an interest that peaked in the sentimental 18th and 19th centuries. Hair was sometimes preserved in a significant book, scrapbooks, letters, and even in the elaborate form of jewellery.
In the selection we hold here there is a range of different reasons and motives to why the hair was preserved, and what it tells us about the individual.