This website was built by Professor Ellery Foutch and students of her Middlebury College Winter 2021 class “Material Culture in Focus: Hair & Hairwork” (AMST 1017), a course that explored the multivalent meanings of hair in American culture, past and present. Our research was focused on local examples of hairwork: nineteenth-century hand-made objects constructed from human hair, often exchanged as mementos or transformed into elaborate items of jewelry or keepsake wreaths that emblematized familial relationships and kinship networks. Years of planning went into this class, from researching the medium of hairwork to coordinating with local museums and historical societies to select objects with recorded data and related archives. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our class met entirely by Zoom. We are grateful to the museums and archives who made their collections “virtually” available to us, by scanning and photographing objects and documents, including the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, the Lincoln Historical Society, Middlebury College Special Collections, Rokeby, and the Shelburne Museum; this work was supported by a generous grant from the Middlebury College Center for Community Engagement.
In addition to our readings, discussions, and research workshops, we also benefited from guest lectures. In a virtual visit to the Shelburne Museum conservation lab, Nancie Ravenel graciously taught us about key principles of object conservation and past treatments of a framed hairwork object. She also had the tools to show us breathtaking detail views of and a live exam of an object in the lab– seeing more than we even could have in person!
We also studied the methods and techniques of nineteenth-century gimp-work in a workshop taught by Karen Bachmann, using copper wire, horsehair, and knitting needle as our main tools. After trying the process firsthand, we had a newfound appreciation for the intricate works we were studying and a greater understanding for how different forms were crafted or constructed.
In these screenshots, class members and colleagues proudly display their hairwork creations. Although we were separated by hundreds of miles in many cases, this shared activity helped bring us together. Please see our Acknowledgements page for more about the many people who helped to make this class a reality.
Material Culture in Focus – AMST 1017
In this course we will investigate material culture, objects made or altered by human hands and design. We will keep a tight focus on one object or group of objects, cultivating an in-depth understanding and benefitting from access to local collections, curators, makers, and users. The focus will change annually, but the subject will always be an object of material culture that students will examine first-hand and research. Students will then create a lasting documentation and analysis of the work for public benefit, whether as an exhibition, a publication, or a website.
For Winter 2021, we will focus on hair and hairwork, exploring the multivalent meanings of hair in American culture, past and present. Nineteenth-century Americans often saved or exchanged locks of hair as mementos, constructing elaborate items of jewelry or keepsake wreaths that emblematized familial relationships and kinship networks. These tokens could serve memorial purposes or solidify friendships. This material, crafted from the body, was often worn on the body, near the heart, or displayed within the intimate space of the home. In more recent decades, hair has become an activist issue and a potent political medium for artists foregrounding feminism and ethnic or racial identity. In this course, we will study many artifacts of hairwork in local collections, conducting archival research and sharing our findings via a website and exhibition; a studio workshop will give us hands-on experience with Victorian techniques of hairwork. We’ll also consider the work of contemporary artists who use hair as a medium: Janine Antoni, Mark Bradford, Sonya Clark, Aisha Cousins, Wenda Gu, David Hammons, Althea Murphy-Price, Paula Santiago.
Banner image: Hairwork watch fob with ivory charm. Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, 68.20.a. Gift of Mrs. Frances A. Waite. Photograph by Jonathan Blake.