Homegrown Gifts: George Washington’s Locks
By Andrea Cronin, Reader Services
Our exhibition Father of His Country Returns to Boston closes today as the holiday season wraps up. The exhibition commemorates the 225th anniversary of President George Washington’s month-long tour of New England in October 1789. One of the most interesting items on display as part of this exhibition is a lock of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton worked closely with Washington throughout the American Revolution and their political careers. Hamilton was born the second illegitimate child of James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien on 11 January 1755 or 1757 in Charlestown on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He worked as a clerk until he traveled to the British North American colonies for education. In New York, Hamilton became increasingly involved in the rumblings of Revolution during his studies at King’s College before responding to a call for recruits in 1776. Washington appointed Hamilton to the position of aide-de-camp at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on 1 March 1777. Washington mentored Hamilton as he did with all his aides-de-camp until a parting of ways in February 1781 when Hamilton resigned from Washington’s staff position over insult. However, their working relationship did not end there. Washington later appointed Hamilton as first Secretary of the Treasury in September 1789 just before the President’s tour of New England commenced in October. The circumstances surrounding the gift of Washington’s hair to Hamilton however remain undocumented.
The practice of gifting hair seems particularly strange to the 21st century observer. Nowadays people share photographs of themselves and their families in holiday cards or digitally through social media. Portraiture remained the primary way individuals shared images of themselves prior to the invention of the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s. But the gift of hair also held considerable value. Hair was often woven and incorporated into rings, bracelets, and other jewelry throughout the 18th century. Lovers, friends, and family often exchanged locks of hair as mementos. Vestiges of hair traditions remain even today when parents save locks of their children’s hair.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has not just one but two separate locks of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton. Mrs. Charles Mason donated the first singular lock to the Society on 11 May 1876. The second lock of Washington’s hair is framed together with a lock of Hamilton’s own hair. The son of Alexander Hamilton, James A. Hamilton of Nevis, gave these locks to Eliza Andrew, wife of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, on 27 October 1865. The Society later received the locks from Andrew’s children, Edith and Henry Hersey Andrew in December 1920.
The text of the frame states:
“The above is the hair of my Father
Alexander Hamilton, presented
by me to Mrs. Andrew
Octo. 27 1865
James A. Hamilton”
“The above is the Hair of “The Father
of his Country” Geo. Washington pre=
sent to his friend Mrs Andrew by
James A. Hamilton
Oct 27 1865”
Marble bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1794
Their working relationship tempered by respect endured any snarls. Washington’s death on 11 December 1799 came as a great loss not only to the country he fathered but also to his former mentee. In a letter to Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear on 2 January 1800, Hamilton wrote, “Perhaps no man in this community has equal cause with myself to deplore the loss. I have been much indebted to the kindness of the General, and he was an Aegis very essential to me.”
| Published: Friday, 9 January, 2015, 1:00 AM
Margaret Hall’s WWI Memoir: The Book, the Talk, the Exhibition
By Jim Connolly, Publications
I’ve posted on the Beehive a few times about Margaret Hall, a Massachusetts woman who volunteered with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. So you may know (and if you didn’t, now you do!) that her memoir and selected photographs from her war experience will be published for the first time in the Society’s forthcoming book, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The MHS will publish the volume on 14 July 2014.
Come celebrate the release of Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country on Tuesday, 15 July 2014, when the volume’s editor, Margaret R. Higonnet, will give a talk titled “‘What is Focus?’ Margaret Hall’s Battle Country.” The program will run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM following a pre-talk reception at 5:30 PM. This event is free but requires an RSVP. Register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
And while you’re in the Society’s 1154 Boylston Street building, you can take in our current exhibition, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War. Until then, you can get your Margaret Hall fix from July’s Object of the Month.
| Published: Friday, 11 July, 2014, 8:00 AM
Commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation
Tuesday, 1 January marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. As part of the Society's ongoing celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War we have staged two related exhibitions, both of which will open on Monday, 1 January with special exhibition hours (12:00 PM to 4:00 PM) and a public program (details below).
Forever Free, features the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and a number of paintings, broadsides, engravings, and manuscripts that tell the story of how Boston celebrated Emancipation.
Lincoln in Manuscript and Artifact offers visitors an opportunity to view Lincoln's letter to Joshua F. Speed explaining his evolving views on slavery as well as the casts of the life mask and hands of Lincoln made by Leonard Volk in the spring of 1860.
At 2:00 PM on New Years Day, MHS Librarian Peter Drummey and Curator of Art Anne Bentley will guide visitors through the story of when the news arrived in Boston on New Year’s Day 1863 that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, focusing on how this epochal event in American history became an extraordinary moment in Boston history, and how the pen Lincoln used to sign the proclamation became one of the most treasured artifacts in the MHS collection.
| Published: Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00 PM
Mourning Jewelry: A Spooky Tradition?
By Jim Connolly, Publications
Halloween approaches and the MHS has decked the halls with skulls, skeletons, and scythes. Or if you don’t find those creepy, then how about rings full of human hair? How about a brooch featuring a snake eating its own tail (the ouroboros, a symbol of eternity—in itself a scary thing!)?
The spooky objects on display are part of the exhibition In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, as described in a previous post. The season is right for a closer look at one of the most haunting and emblematic pieces in the exhibition.
This ring, part of the MHS collections, commemorates John Gray, the infant son of John and Mary Otis Gray and nephew of political writer Mercy Otis Warren. John died at only six days old. The ring has a design of three joined enameled scrolls and a gold foil skull under a square crystal. The inscription that runs around the outside of the band reads, “J:GRAY OB·17·SEP 1763·Æ 6D,” meaning “John Gray died 17 September 1763 aged 6 days.” Less than two months after the infant’s death, his mother died as well, and a ring was made in her memory.
While skull imagery might seem outré today, it was commonplace in both memento mori jewelry and mourning jewelry before the neoclassical style. Jewels bearing skulls, skeletons, gravediggers’ tools, and other seemingly grim images served to remind the wearer that they will die and should therefore live with the next world in mind. Or, as another ring’s inscription eloquently puts it, “A good life a happie death.”
To learn more about mourning jewelry, and to see some truly beautiful and affecting pieces, visit In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry at the MHS. The exhibition is free and open to the public. The full-color companion volume, written by the exhibition’s co-curator Sarah Nehama, can be purchased in person at the MHS or online at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
| Published: Friday, 19 October, 2012, 10:00 AM
Death, Skeletons, and Fashion: New Exhibition and Book on the Jewelry of Mourning
By Emilie Haertsch, Publications
How do you remember your deceased loved ones? Today many mourners have unique rituals for honoring the dead. Some brand their bodies with tattoos, or print photographs of the departed on T-shirts they can wear. In other cultures the more traditional outward displays of grief persist, such as donning black clothing for a period of time after the death.
Trends in mourning rituals and attire change with the times, and centuries ago the bereaved had their own ways of commemorating loved ones. In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, an upcoming exhibition at the MHS by jeweler Sarah Nehama and MHS Curator of Art Anne Bentley, examines the practice from the 17th through the 19th century of commissioning and wearing rings, bracelets, brooches, and other jewels to honor the dead.
The exhibition features mourning jewels and memento mori pieces. The former memorialize a family member or close friend who recently died. Examples in the exhibition feature inscriptions with the dead’s initials and date of death, hair work made from the locks of the deceased, and miniatures and daguerreotypes depicting the visage of the loved one. Memento mori pieces, however, do not remember a specific person, but rather serve to remind the wearer that a good Christian does not live for this world but for the next. Memento mori translates to “remember death."
Co-curator Sarah Nehama authored a companion book to the exhibition of the same name. In Death Lamented, now available for purchase on Amazon, displays vivid color photographs of the jewels, along with detailed information about the pieces, the mourners, and the mourned. It also examines the changing trends in memorial jewelry style, from baroque to rococo to neoclassical, and beyond.
Both the exhibition and book feature jewels commemorating prominent historical figures, including George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln. View these and other mourning jewels at the MHS exhibition beginning September 28, or preview the jewelry now by purchasing a copy of In Death Lamented. Also, check our events page for upcoming public programs related to mourning jewelry. You just might learn a little about the origins of your own bereavement traditions.
| Published: Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 4:48 PM