Historical Context

Hair Wreath Hair Wreath

The wooden box holding the wreath weighs 12 pounds and is a 22-inch by 22-inch structure. The box keeps the wreath safe and made it easy to display on the hearth of the Zahnley home. The amber brown box would have blended into the walls, drawing focus to the wreath itself, a proud symbol of the eternal bonds that united the family. Hazel Zahnley kept the box and wreath in her home on 1850 Claflin for her entire life. Her son donated them to the Riley County Historical society in 1988 after Hazel passed away.

Those who have worked closely with the object believe that the wreath was constructed at home. In the nineteenth century, people had two options to have hair jewelry made: they could send hair to companies in the northeast United States, or they could choose the cheaper alternative, which was to construct hair jewelry at home. It was common practice among young women around the turn of the century,to brush their hair using exactly one hundred strokes and deposit the brushed out hair in a special container. In fact, amongst the affects of Hazel Zahnley was such a deposit jar for human hair. Women's journals published do-it-yourself guides for hair jewelry that were accessible to middle class women who spent their days at home.  In “‘This Memento Strangely Fair’: Hairwork Jewelry in America,” Deanna Ledezma notes that hair artwork traveled to the United States from Germany (7). Ledezma argues, “the pivotal change in hairwork jewelry during the mid-nineteenth century centered on the popularity of hairwork as a domestic handicraft of middle-class women” (8). Ledezma also details the strategies of women's journals to make hair jewelry home constructions more appealing to women. Some journals, for example, warned that some manufacturers mixed in “dead” hair from wigs or hairpieces (11).

Women’s journals also generated a profitable business by selling hair bows, brushes, and braiding tools for hair art. Clearly, hair jewelry was part of a larger, flourishing culture of mourning. While the idea of elaborate public mourning is foreign to contemporary American culture, death was a central part of everyday life in the 1800s. The death of Abraham Lincoln in particular made the entire nation grieve for the loss of their father figure. The American Civil War pitted brother against brother and was one of the bloodiest wars in American history. Over 620,000 Americans died during the Civil War, and this had a deep impact on US society (“Civil War Facts”). When a family member passed, it was common to dress in black for month and even years. Nineteenth-century American literature derived many of its central themes from this pervasive nature of death. In “Communities of Death: Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Nineteenth-Century American Culture of Mourning and Memorializing,” Adam Cunliffe Bradford reads Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass and Poe's work as expressions of this larger culture of grieving. He writes:

Poe’s aesthetic philosophies were aligned with those that undergird many of the contemporary mourning objects of the day … his otherwise Gothic and macabre literature nevertheless served rather conventional and even recuperative ends by exposing the necessity of and inviting readers to participate in culturally sanctioned acts of mourning, and … he sought to confirm the harmony between his work and more conventional “consolation” or mourning literature by actively seeking to bring that work (and the “self” that produced it) visibly before his readership in a medium that this culture held was a reliable indicator of the nature and intent of both that work and its producer – namely his own personal script. (1)

Hair jewelry was a response to this culture of death and mourning. While hair ornaments traveled from the old country to the new, it took on a new meaning and life in the United States. Interwoven in the Zahnley family hair wreath are the remnants of the dead and representations of the living, forging a visual symbol of the family unit. From the former fruitful plains of Germany to the life-giving hills of the heartland of the Midwestern United States, the Zahnley wreath tells the story of a family that traversed the Atlantic to find and live the American Dream.