Revisited Myth # 94: Hair receivers were dressing table accessories meant for gathering hair with which to make hair art.

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Thanks go to Ashley Rogers who sent this question: “I work in a historic home where I wrangle a corps of 30 volunteers, and keeping their wandering myths in line is a full-time job. I’ve gone through your site, and to my knowledge, I haven’t found anything about hair receivers. This is a contentious collection piece in my museum, because just like at most historic homes, many of my docents tell visitors that hair receivers were for gathering hair with which to make hair art. Bunk, I say! And here’s why: the hair that came off of a brush would be too tangled and broken to make fine hair art with. Also, hair art is so often associated with Victorian mourning practices that very often these pieces were made from locks from the deceased. Where do you weigh in on this issue? I’d love to see it covered, if the mid-to-late Victorian Era is not too far past your preferred time period.”

You’ve answered your own question so nicely, Ashley, that I consider this a “guest blog.” I can only add to your conclusion something that I located in the library, a book you may have seen: THE ART OF HAIR WORK (1989), which reprints Mark Campbell’s 1875 book plus excerpts from Godey’s Lady’s Magazine. These pages show how to make numerous braid patterns and jewelry, specifically rings, necklaces, and bracelets, from hair. But all the hair is to be purchased from suppliers or, less commonly, cut from the head of a loved one, living or deceased. A nice thick, long strand is required, not broken, short, single strands collected from from a brush or comb. Those could not be gathered into a hank of hair suitable for jewelry-making.

So what happened to the hair in hair receivers? This tangled mess of hair could be saved until there was enough to stuff in a tiny pillow for use as a pin cushion or into a hairnet to make a ratt, a ball of hair that could add height or fullness to one’s hairdo. “While some say that hair saved in receivers was also used for hair jewelry, love tokens, and mourning mementos, Lori Verge, curator of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, states those items required straight, not tangled hair. She believes that women used cut hair (rather than combed out hair) for those purposes. Ms. Verge also reports that her grandmother used a hair receiver as late as the 1950s.” (www.go-star.com/antiquing/hairreceivers.htm) Also see http://www.hairwork.com/remember.htm (the official Victorian Hairwork Society website) for an article by Susan and Jim Harran for Antique Week, Dec. 1997.

COMMENTS:

Melissa Nesbitt says:
August 25, 2012 at 9:49 am (Edit)
I’m glad to see an answer to this. We also have hair receivers in our historic house museum. I’ve never been told they were used for making hair art but rather the ratts as you said. But I’m glad to know how hair art was made as I had not researched that before. Speaking of hair, we have in our collection a long blonde braid that is a false hair piece though made from human hair. It’s interesting to me that hair pieces are not a “new” thing at all. 🙂

Reply
Eric Koontz says:
December 7, 2012 at 10:59 am (Edit)
Hair Receivers were used to make a hair Switch or as you say hair piece.

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Cassidy says:
August 25, 2012 at 10:12 am (Edit)
Ever since I started looking into hair jewelry for an exhibition I worked on, I’ve noticed that people really, really like the idea of it as personal mementoes. Nearly every piece of hair jewelry I’ve come across with a provenance has a story about it being someone or other’s hair and they made it themselves, etc. I guess it’s more interesting than “this bracelet was bought in a store” or “this watch chain was made with hair from a supplier”.

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Kathy Bundy says:
August 25, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
Thank you for using the word “hank”, as in hank of hair. Also thanks for the correct spelling of ratt. Details make all the difference.

As a sentimental mom, I have saved hanks of hair I harvested from my children when they were nearly grown, my son’s is a braid of about 12″ long. Don’t know if I’ll make jewelry, but it’s sure to freak somebody out after I’m gone. We won’t even talk about baby teeth.

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Erin says:
August 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm (Edit)
This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a hair receiver! What a great idea. I wish I’d had one on my dresser when I had long hair. Question for you and Kathy: what’s the spelling history of rat/ratt? The OED only gives the former spelling, and all seven example sentences (from 1863 to 1996) use the word with only one “t” (also, the OED says it’s a “U.S.” term rather than “chiefly U.S.” — so what are hair pads called in the UK? Canadians also say “rat[t]”.

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marymiley says:
August 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Sorry, Erin, I can’t answer that question about spelling. I can only say that in almost every instance when you see the word in print, it is spelled both ways, like “ratt (also rat)” or vice versa. Since the more scholarly-looking places seemed to prefer the double T, I used that one. Also it makes for less confusion. I wondered if this term had anything to do with the phrase “rat’s nest,” something my grandmother would say back in the ’50s when my hair was all tangled, but I haven’t seen any solid connection.

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Mary Miley says:
August 30, 2012 at 8:06 am (Edit)
Now I’m getting ads from China in my email box, trying to sell me human hair!

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Gemma says:
September 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm (Edit)
Erin: I’ve never noticed this before (and will definitely use in the future) but to the right of the definition of many words in the OED is a link “thesaurus”. For rat it suggests: roll (1532), cushion (1774), toque (1817) and system. Each links straight to the relevant definition of the word with quotations.

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Mary Miley says:
September 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm (Edit)
You must be talking about the online version of the OED, which I have never seen. I just use the huge, multi-volume set at the library. That feature sounds wonderful. I wish I had access to it.

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Carlos Talavera says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:13 am (Edit)
As a costume designer having done some research for period dress/styles; Ratts were used to roll the hair into pretty elaborate styles during the late Victorian and into the Edwardian period (think of the Gibson Girl illustrations with the hair almost twice as wide as the face). Not every woman was blessed with a ridiculously full head of perfectly setting hair. I am not sure if they did offer “rolls” of hair for sale that you could use (much later they were made of nylon mesh over a wire frame) but what better than your own hair that matched your color perfectly?

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Sarah Kirton says:
October 7, 2013 at 8:09 pm (Edit)
My grandmothers both hung the wads of collected hair outdoors for the birds (and probably the squirrels) to use in their nests, starting in early spring to a bit after mid-summer. They both used hair receivers.

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Mary Miley says:
October 8, 2013 at 8:43 am (Edit)
Hi, Sarah. My grandmother did that too. Only she would gather the hair from her hairbrush and put it on a tree near her bird bath and feeders. She could call the birds and they would come. It always amazed me to watch. Thanks for the nice memory!

Reply

3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 94: Hair receivers were dressing table accessories meant for gathering hair with which to make hair art.

  1. xkv8rs says:

    My grandmother brushed her long hair with 100 strokes each night and placed the hair from her brush in a Japanese porcelain hair receiver that sat on her dressing table. In the morning she would style her hair in a bun that she’d plump with hair from the receiver. Her time consuming daily rituals fascinated me when I was a young child.

  2. Cassidy says:

    Can confirm! I save the hair from my comb to make rats with for costuming purposes, and it’s way too tangled and nasty to do anything precise or visible with, unfortunately. (I would really like to turn it into switches and falls.)

    Despite many family histories stating that a hair watch cord or bracelet or set of earrings was made from a particular woman’s hair, it is much, much, much likelier that the hair was bought from young women for the purpose of weaving.

  3. Melanie says:

    A person with very healthy hair, especially straight hair, could certainly make switches out of what comes off on the brush or comb. The key is healthy hair that is brushed carefully so as not to tear it. It took me several years of regular trims and careful avoidance of sulfates and alcohols in my shampoos & conditioner, and eschewing nearly all styling products, but my hair is now of the length and quality that anything which comes off on the brush is long and tangle-free.

    Hair sheds at different rates in different climates, and with different levels of overall health of the person, but over time enough can be collected to supplement one’s own hair and make more elaborate hairstyles, for free, amd without risking exposure to parasites that could transfer when purchasing hair (such as could be done in the 19th century).

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