Eternal Bonds: Of Hair and Family

 Hair Wreath; ca. 1920
Gift of Donald Zahnley
Riley County Historical Society, Manhattan
Human hair, wood, steel wire, glue 

This intricate hair wreath was likely handmade around 1920 by the Zahnley family living on 1850 Claflin Road in Manhattan, Kansas. Throughout the nineteenth century, women’s journals published instructions on how to create objects and jewelry from human hair as artifacts of affection and treasured mementos. Due to its capacity to retain color, substance, and elasticity long after being separated from the body, hair was understood as a symbol of enduring life. Refashioned, as in this wreath, into eternal familial flowers or blooms, sentimental hair objects were part of a larger nineteenth-century culture of mourning, of which the cummerbund in this exhibition is another example. In this hair wreath, the wish to keep the bodies of loved ones from dying and decaying is expressed on an aesthetic level. Instead of dismissing hair objects as disturbing relics from the past, we need to remember that for nineteenth-century Americans objects made of hair had the power to visualize invisible sentimental bonds and reconstruct the human body into an ideal form that could overcome death.

The Zahnley family hair wreath is 10.5 inches by 11 inches and made of hair from several generations and various donors, as the light blonde, dark blonde, strawberry blonde, and brunette strands make apparent. Small paper labels record names of some of the family members who donated their hair, such as Hattie, William, James, Frankland, Mabelle, and Becky Zahnley. Hair kept from grandparents was used as well. Notice the tags labeled “grandpa” and “grandma.” In addition, hair from close family friends was included, such as Mary MacAdoos, the Zahnley’s neighbor. Creating the over twenty-five individual hair blooms, leaves, and ornaments would have taken Hazel, or Hattie Zahnley, who probably made the wreath, a couple of months. An amber-colored, wooden and glass box protects the hair wreath, a proud symbol that still speaks of the eternal, affective bonds that united this Kansas family.



Davis Mattek