The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

28 July 2006

Give me down to there

Hair today, gone tomorrow? Leila Cohoon just laughs. She knows better. And she'll tell you the story of an archaeological find: a mummy from ancient Egypt, dug up with its hair — its hair style, even — still in place after all these years.

Leila's Hair Museum, and that is the name of it, is located on a busy boulevard in Independence, Missouri, and it's about the only place on earth devoted to the fine art of hairwork: wreaths, decorative items, jewelry, made partially or completely with human hair, sometimes wound about the thinnest of wire.

This practice sounds somewhat, well, colonial, and indeed it was fairly common in the days of the American Revolution, persisting for a century afterwards and then falling into desuetude. But forming hair into objets d'art goes back as far as the Renaissance, maybe before; the oldest documented piece in the Museum, a brooch with a strand of hair inside a crystalline case, was made in Sweden and dates to 1680.

The pieces I found most interesting were the family wreaths: often in the overall shape of a horseshoe (for easy updating), hair from family members was twisted into flowers or leaves, attached to the framework, name and dates affixed, and the process repeated for subsequent generations. (Example here.) This was slow, painstaking work: one young girl spent two years assembling a wreath. Another wreath consists entirely of one woman's hair; her mother began the construction at her birth, and continued to collect samples for the next forty-five years.

The jewelry is remarkable in its own right. Sometimes the hair is a structural component; sometimes it's ground to a powder and used as a pigment. Those of us who have grumbled about split ends will shake our heads in disbelief, but it's true: hair, treated well, is darn near indestructible. (Leila's hint: Quit using those shampoos with the same pH as drain cleaner, fercryingoutloud.) More than 2000 individual pieces of jewelry — watch fobs, bracelets, rings, brooches — are presently in the collection. I was fascinated by the "funeral rings," built upon a lock of the decedent's hair, sent to relatives far away who could not attend the burial services. They are simple and unadorned, but they speak volumes.

It's probably not too hard to understand why hairwork of this sort died out: it's labor-intensive and then some. Still, there are a handful of hardy practitioners still out there. (Here's a contemporary birthstone wreath by Melanie Mead.) And Leila Cohoon, seventy-five, her own hair of course impeccable — she also runs the Independence College of Cosmetology and must therefore set a proper example — is the true keeper of the flame, or at least the flame-colored tresses. (I did not think it proper to suggest that there seemed to be a lot fewer blondes in the 19th century.)

Leila's Hair Museum is at 1333 South Noland Road in Independence, a block and a half south of 23rd Street. It's open 9 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is a mere $5, or about a third of what I pay for a haircut. Photography is not permitted, though the Lawrence Journal-World has a small gallery of photos from the museum, taken last fall. And you know, any museum in which both Daniel Webster and Phyllis Diller are represented simply demands your attention.

Posted at 3:10 PM to Entirely Too Cool , World Tour '06