First Person

August 30, 2013 6:23 pm

First Person: Leila Cohoon

‘I run a museum of human hair’
Leila Cohoon in her Missouri museum©Philip Heying

Leila Cohoon in her Missouri museum. She bought her first hair wreath instead of new Easter shoes

There’s nothing gruesome about collecting human hair. Visitors who come to my museum in Independence, Missouri, often think the exhibits are cut from dead people but they were mostly very much alive. The tradition dates back hundreds of years, to a time when giving a keepsake of human hair was a token of love. It’s true that some pieces were also an act of remembrance for a family member who had passed away but it was always done for a loving reason.

I started working with hair in 1949 as a trainee hairdresser. I loved being in a beauty salon and knew immediately that it was right for me, although I had no idea then where it would lead me. In 1956, just after I married my husband Don, I walked into an antique shop in Kansas City and spotted a tiny wreath of human hair, set in a gold frame. I was mesmerised and wanted it immediately. I had $35 saved to buy some new Easter shoes and I spent the lot on this 6in sq piece of art. Don says it cost a lot more because I have spent so much developing my collection since.

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I opened my own Lady Marceline Beauty Salon that same year and put the frame of hair next to the mirror. A few months later, I was cutting a woman’s hair and she just happened to spot it. She said she had a hair wreath for sale in her antique shop, so I bought that one as well. From that point on, I went searching for new pieces.

The oldest item I have in the museum is a crystal brooch with a piece of hair inside that was made in 1680. Hair jewellery later became popular with the Victorians, who used it to make earrings, necklaces and brooches. When Queen Victoria died, it is said she was buried wearing a bracelet made of hair from her beloved husband Albert, plus another piece of hair from her favourite personal servant, John Brown.

I’m 81 now and my collection has 2,000 exhibits, plus 600 hair wreaths, which are shaped like a horseshoe and often set in a frame. These designs were commonly made of human hair from an entire family and their relations, all wove together into one piece. I have one that has the names of 82 people written next to it, so it acts like a family tree. Hair doesn’t deteriorate even when it has been cut so this is an everlasting record of those people.

I opened my own beauty school in 1960 and moved my collection of hair artefacts there. Eventually, it outgrew that space, so we found another building a few blocks away. My children and a grandson will carry on the tradition when I’m no longer around.

People contact me from all over the world offering new pieces, and I buy a lot on eBay – the average price is about $150. The cheapest piece of hair art I bought was 35 cents in a garage sale and the most expensive was $1,500. A lot depends on the size and the quality of the frame. I don’t often accept the hair of famous people because it’s difficult to confirm the authenticity, but I do have some: from Queen Victoria herself and from four American presidents, including Lincoln. There are also framed snippets of hair from Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson.

My favourite piece is a tiny frame, 3in by 4in. It contains a pocket book that holds a wreath of hair dated 1880. The name inscribed is Lucy Connell, who made it when she was 46 years old, together with the names of her daughter and five children. There are 35 different techniques for making a hair wreath and this one uses eight, which makes it very rare indeed.

We welcome around 150 visitors to the museum every month. I spend a lot of my time teaching people the art of hair weaving and writing a book on hair and its history. I’m not sure how people will remember me but I wouldn’t mind if it was through a locket of my own hair that would last for ever.

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