2009-12-17 / Local & State

Museum Displays Creepy Artifact Of Mourning

By Scott Beveridge

DONORA, Pa. (AP) – The historical society in Donora has no record of Mrs. Koehler’s first name, but it keeps her dead relatives’ hair preciously preserved under a glass dome. Mrs. Koehler was among the Victorian era’s wealthy class that took to the mourning art of hair weaving as a way to honor the deceased.

But, who knows what inspired her to attach the hair in the form of intricate flowers, sprays and springing doodads to a black wooden cross that stands 18 inches tall.

“It just gets creepier and creepier,’’ said Brian Charlton, the archivist at the Donora Historical Society’s museum, where the sculpture is displayed near the front door.

This type of folk art became widely popular in the late 1800s when women appeared to care more about how they wore their grief in public than about returning to a normal life following the death of a child, spouse or parent.

So while British Queen Victoria made mourning fashionable by wearing black clothes every day after her husband died, her many adoring fans opted to turn the hair of their loved ones into jewelry or framed art.

Some created such things as a picture of a weeping willow tree leaning over a tomb or a crown of ribbons to adorn a photograph of the dearly departed.

The tradition may have had its origins in Germany, said Megin Harrington, innkeeper at the historic Century Inn in Scenery Hill.

Harrington collects hair weavings, displaying them in her restaurant in the 20-room stone house dating to 1794. One hangs in a large frame over a fading inscription in German that honors the person whose hair is under the glass.

Meanwhile, the Washington County Historical Society has a similar weaving containing the hair of the seven LeMoyne sisters who lived it the stone house on Route 40 the society uses as its headquarters. It also has a delicate shawl woven from hair by anknown artist.

The morbidity of this fashion, though, mades it clear why the art form fell out of style after photography made it much easier to remember the dead.

“I just love them, but the were really creepy,’’ Harrington said. “I don’t know why they did them. Some people just think they are so weird.’’

Oftentimes it was eldest daughter who saved the hair of her deceased mother and used it to create mourning art, she said. People also were known to use human hair to stuff pillows.

“They were very resourceful. They saved everything,’’ Harrington said. “I can’t imagine how much time these took.’’

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