Friday, November 22, 2013

Victorian Era Human Hair Wreath

Anna Tanner’s Hair Wreath

November 2, 2011                                  by Taylor Speer-Sims
Human hair and wire on silk inside wooden box
c. 1859 to 1900
 Junior Year
American Military University
Photo taken by author
For Tanner House Museum
Taylor Speer-Sims

November 2, 2011

Anna Tanner’s Hair Wreath

The hair wreath art form has been in existence for millennia. The life work was important as mementos of love and friendship. This type of art ended in the twentieth century, but it was still popular in the Victorian times, when Amy Tanner created one for her mother using her siblings’ tresses. The Tanner hair wreath has many different techniques within one work of art. While only a verbal history, it is generally accepted that the horseshoe wreath in the Tanner House Museum is a Tanner artifact.

The Tanner House Museum is located in Aurora, Illinois. William and Anna Tanner, in 1857, commissioned the house to be built. The Tanners had ten children all of whom lived to adulthood, save the eldest daughter, who died when she was two years old. The home housed all children, and one servant, in the Victorian times. The house museum has many of the Tanner original items as artifacts. One such artifact is a hair wreath that is in the solarium (also called the upstairs parlor) in the center front of the home (Speer-Sims, 2).
Hair wreaths were an art that originated sometime in the thirteenth century and passed down from mother to daughter until it swiftly ended in 1920 with the culmination of women’s suffrage and possibly affordable photography. Women of all classes would begin their training in needlepoint, and also hair wreaths, starting at about nine years old. Girls would learn to do their hair wreaths with embroidery floss or yarn first and would eventually be able to “work” in up to thirty techniques. These could be small boutonniere size, or extremely large (Williams).

There is a current misconception that these were mementos of death (memento mori); however they were actually the opposite. Hair wreaths were made by the living, of the living, and for the living, in most cases (Williams). Portraits, and then later photographs, were extremely expensive until about the 1920’s (Williams, Putzier). One way of keeping a memento of your friend and/or loved one was to collect a small portion of hair (Williams). Many a love poem and romantic novel of old would regale lover’s locks. What would the lover do with it? They would make them part of a hair wreath or jewelry (Williams). This was sort of similar to a friendship bracelet of today, only more personal.

The personal memento Anna Tanner received by her third daughter, Amy, was a hair wreath that included hair of all of her nine remaining children. The only provenance of this particular piece of art is that Amy did the work with the hair of the other Tanner children, and this was not on any type of written type of documentation. In fact, this news was verbally passed down from museum curator to curator via descriptive discussion. Other than this oral tradition, there is no other proof (Putzier).

What has been proven was that Amy was born on November 28, 1846, and the youngest child, George Washington Tanner, was born December 19, 1854 (Still). Given the above information about hair wreaths and the ages of the young ladies, she probably did not begin it until 1855, by which time the youngest had been a year old. Mother Anna died in Aurora in 1900 and was survived by Amy (Still). So, by deduction, this hair wreath was worked sometime within a forty-five year period, from 1855 to 1900.

Somewhere within that sixty-two years Amy reportedly gathered hair from her siblings to create this work of love for her mother. There are definitely nine colors in the wreath, although they can be very difficult to differentiate. They range from a white blonde to a gray. The gray would have been presumably her oldest brother Augustus, who was born in 1841 (Still). This would indicate that the artifact was created at a later date than 1855 because he would have only been fourteen. While some people do go gray from as early as eighteen, fourteen seems too young (Bewley). So, to deduce even further, the Tanner Hair Wreath would have been made between the years 1859 to 1900, but still probably later than the 1859 date because most people do not go gray that early.

The gray hair and the rest of the children’s hair was made into the wreath, and put into its own shadow box that fit it perfectly in size. The box is in an octagon shape where the face measures 13½” across and is lined on the inside in a cream, rough silk.. The glass face is 9½” across and surrounded by gold trimming that is ½” x ¼”, but equals to 1” in width because there is a slight bulbous line that separates the two gold areas. There is a wooden area around the gold that is dark brown with black spots. This is 1” wide, but angles down toward the glass so that it only takes up ¾” in width. The box itself is 5½” tall where the base is 3¾” and the lid is 1¾” tall when sitting on its back.
Side of Homemade Shadowbox

My notes on measurements

            Side of Shadow box                                                      
             notes by author
       Photo taken by author for Tanner House Museum

The hair wreath is a horseshoe shape with a “boutonniere” in its center. The first eighty years had the wreath in an upside-down horseshoe, however after research this author informed the curator of the Tanner Museum that when it was upside down, “it allowed all the luck to run out” (Williams). The piece was promptly righted, and hung so that there would be no more running of the luck! The horseshoe is two inches across at the opening and opens up to six inches across in the center. It takes up seven inches from the top to the bottom.

Notes by author (me)


The center boutonniere is 3½” x 2½”. The flowers in the horseshoe range from 1” in diameter, to 2½” in diameter, with most being around the 2” mark. The boutonniere flowers are from an inch to 1½” in diameter. All of the flowers have metal wire stamens that are made in a spiral. At the top of the horseshoe, there are hearts that meant, “they were given to someone that they loved” (Williams).

Detailed photos of Anna Tanner’s Hair Wreath taken by author for Tanner House Museum.

Amy lovingly used multiple techniques within this one hair work. The back of the horseshoe has been wrapped so tightly with the darkest color hair so that there is no wire showing. Techniques of the hair wrapping include short loops and large loose loops within just one flower. Other hair was knotted, or twisted, or knotted and twisted. Sometimes the wire is visible, other times it can only be seen as the stamen. One thing for certain is that all of the flowers are all very technical, not to mention beautiful. This artwork could not have been created in one day, but must have taken weeks, months or even years to complete.

Detailed photos of Anna Tanner’s Hair Wreath taken by author for Tanner House Museum.

The work of art Amy Tanner completed for her mother, Anna Tanner, can still be seen today at the Tanner House Museum in Aurora Illinois. Even though the exact date is not evident, it probably had been created between the years of 1859 to 1917. Hair wreaths were not usually memento mori, but were actually creations of love and friendship of living loved ones. The technicality of the piece is evident in the numerous ways the tresses were processed throughout this one work of art. Anna Tanner’s Hair Wreath may not be thought of as a typical piece of art. It is, however, a very beautiful piece that was given by a daughter to her mother that she loved.

Works Cited.

Bewley, Lindsey. “I’m 24 and I Have Grey Hair! What’s Going On?” Scienceline: The
Shortest Distance Between You and Science. New York University, October 8, 2007. 3 November, 2011. Web. 3 November, 2011.

Putzier, Jennifer. Personal interview. 20 October, 2011, 27 October, 2011, 1 November,

Speer-Sims, Taylor. “Tanner House: Domestic Help Included.” 22 July, 2011. APUS,
           Research paper for Antebellum America class. Print.

Still, Fannie Simpson. Family Record. N.d. Aurora Historical Society Archives. Original

Williams, Nancy. Personal interview. 27 October, 2011.

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