The Key To The Lock

They lie at rest beneath glass; twisted and curled with art and tears – products of a grief that will not surrender.  They are the creations of loss:  delicate memories that are kept close in melancholy beauty.

Mourning jewelry was popular during the notoriously sentimental 19th century – a time of disease and fey prettiness. In England, it became especially popular after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when the Widow of Windsor made grieving an art, shrouding the court in shadow.

Taking their cue from the Queen, people glorified lives made unnecessarily short with brooches, rings, bracelets and lockets containing a strand of the deceased’s hair.  These items were exquisitely graceful:   filigrees of sad, burnished gold or onyx, outlined with tears of pearls.  The lock of hair each held was woven and spun into sprays of wheat, weeping willows, scrolls of feathers, complex plaited mats.




They were tiny memorials worn on the wrist, on the lapel, around the neck or finger:  but always close to the heart.


During life, lovers would exchange jewels bearing locks of their hair.  Bearing the scent and warmth of their paramour’s skin, it becomes a symbol of secrecy and intimacy.  Sometimes, when affection was unrequited, the exchange became one-sided, and took on the appearance of a robbery:

“Th’ Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d:  
Resolv’d to win, he meditates the way,
By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray;
For when Success a Lover’s Toil attends,
Few ask, if Fraud or Force attain’d his Ends.”

– Alexander Pope, ‘The Rape of the Lock’


And there was a certain incident when a barber was so dazzled by his client that his suddenly clumsy razor became a weapon:

“The Princess gave a little scream,
Carrousel’s cut was sharp and deep;
He left her softly as a dream
That leaves a sleeper to his sleep.”

– Aubrey Beardsley, ‘The Ballad of a Barber’


But with death, those tresses and ringlets took on a different significance.  They represented the final embrace, a last grasp at a vanishing spirit before it was lost forever.  Instead of symbolizing a secret promise, they were a reminder of a leave-taking that was too unbearable to tolerate.

It took a unique artist to weave these sorrows – instructions for braiding hair require the transformation of the jeweler’s fingers into a loom of living warp and weft; tense and alive:

“Take twenty-six strands, sixty hairs in a strand, and place them on a table like pattern. Commence at A and B: Take Nos. 1 and change places by swinging them around the table to the left; then take the third strands to the right of A and B, and change places by swinging them around the table to the right then take the fourth strands to the right of the ones last taken, and change places by swinging them around the table to the left, and so on, working around the table to the right; first swinging the strands to the left, and then to the right, taking alternatively the third and fourth strands to the right of the ones last used, until the braid is finished.”

The jeweler must also be wise in the ways of the seamstress, fussing over each hair as if it was a particularly recalcitrant thread:

“THE hair to be used in braiding should be combed perfectly straight, and tied with a sting at the roots, to prevent wasting. Then count the number of hairs for a strand, and pull it out from the tips, dip it in water, and draw it between the thumb and finger to make it lie smoothly. Then tie a solid single knot at one end, the same as you would with a sewing thread.”

Booklets of these instructions became common; newspapers began to carry advertisements:   demand was high, and an industry of mourning sprouted from this fertile marketplace.


By the middle of the 19th century, 50 tons of human hair was imported into England annually, to be used for these declarations of loss.  Eventually, it became a rarity for the deceased’s hair to be used by the grieving family – for the sake of identification, their initials would be discreetly carved or woven into the item.


Yet commerce did not swallow the emotion, the beauty of regret.  Even now, these objects possess a dark loveliness, the distant lament that sighs throughout the centuries.  The allegory of feeling is strong; it is adaptable, and can reside anywhere.  Regardless of popularity and trade, of fashion, of misrepresentation, it lives on.  And that is the key.


10 responses to “The Key To The Lock

  1. Years ago, I would peer into the glass cases in antique stores, fascinated by the mourning lovelocks yet rejecting the purchase as appearing too morbid. Now at an age with no fear of embracing or displaying my eccentricities, I have been thinking of them again. Thanks for this post.

  2. Several years ago I saw a museum exhibition of mourning jewelry and wreaths, some of them amazingly ornate and lovely. The reaction of the other museum goers however was revulsion: “I would never want to wear Dave’s hair after he was gone!” Or just, “Ewwww.”

    I wonder if our attitude towards death has affected the change in attitudes towards mourning attire and their like. The last funeral I attended, the deceased’s daughter was wearing a magenta-colored dress. Still other relatives were wearing kelly green, purple, pastel blue, and navy (which is the sorta-black, but still, in my day, not done at funerals). Maybe I was the only person there who raised an eyebrow: but I miss the days when you could wear an armband or some other token of mourning which told people to be kind or at least respectful of your loss.

  3. The last ring reminds me of horsehair jewelry. Not as morbid, but still very lovely. You can use tail hair from your living horse, or some people choose to remember a beloved companion this way.

  4. I’ve seen pieces of mourning jewelry, and other pieces like the flowers up above, beautifully designed and kept under glass. They remind me of my own impulse to pick wildflowers in the spring – the impulse to hold on to what is by nature fleeting and ephemeral is a strong one.

    You’ve also reminded me of that other hair ritual at the beginning of life – snipping a lock of hair at the first haircut. I still have mine, tied with a pink ribbon.

  5. postcards – I also have encountered that type of guilt that comes with the fascination of the macabre. I did a quick wiki search and found that ‘jewelry’ is derived from the Latin word for plaything. So we are torn between the macabre and the allure of playfulness!

    Hangaku Gozen – it was most definitely a different time. It is possible that people now tend to attend funerals with the intention to mourn, certainly, but also to celebrate the deceased’s life. So fluttery pastels would be accepted. 150 years ago, however, people wept. They faced death, accepted death, lived with death – to the extent of keeping plaits of their loved ones’ hair saved within lovely bits of jewelry.

    brownamazon – very lovely, very serene pieces! It sounds like she might be using the same techniques that the Victorians used – perhaps even older!

    shoreacres – ‘fleeting and ephemeral’ – we are desperate to grasp at souvenirs – whether they be as lovely as flowers or as mournful as the hair of one who has passed on. We need constant proof that a life has been led, enjoyed and shared.

    Funny you should mention the baby locks: I believe a lock of my hair was saved too!

  6. This was so interesting, Aubrey. I saved a lock of my mother’s hair before she died – I never thought of creating something with it, however. Making something with it would be an even better keepsake.

  7. This is fascinating. I had no idea the practice was so prevalent.

  8. Quite recently,while sorting through boxes of family memorabilia and/or junk, I came across an envelope dated August 1939,containing a lock of my late mother’s hair from when she was an infant. An extraordinary find and I won’t attempt to describe the complex emotions it aroused. I still haven’t worked out what I should do with it.

  9. aubrey: grief in any age, publicly acknowledged or not,is a powerful thing; i think of my mother, who was adopted, and the picture she has had of her birth father by her bed. he was an actor, and the photo was a publicity shot taken in his prime…we long even for what we never knew…RT

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