Wednesday, June 22, 2011

George Washington's Hair

Accession Number: 1999.8
Item: Hair sample of George Washington with Letter
Wilton House Museum contains many interesting historical artifacts dating from around the time when the house was built. Regrettably, the home does not have many personal mementos belonging to the Randolph family  since, the last Randolph moved from the house in 1859. Fortunately for Wilton, we were lucky enough to acquire an “artifact” possibly belonging to one of Wilton's most famous guests, George Washington. A snippet of George Washington's hair with a letter came into Wilton's Collection in [1903] when it was presented to the Virginia Dames by Mrs. Claiborne. The letter that came with the hair states that this particular lock belonged to James Hamilton, son of the Alexander Hamilton who then gave it to a Mrs. Perkins on July 23, 1812. An additional letter contains information that Mrs. Perkins gave the hair sample to Mrs. Claiborne to present it to the National Society of Colonial Dames.  From these letters we can surmise that the original owner of this particular piece of hair was Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's aide-de-camp, which has led to many interesting questions that we have sought to answer. Is the hair really that of George Washington?  What can the hair reveal about the time period of George Washington's death? And did he bequeath Alexander Hamilton his hair in accordance with mourning practices at the time period as a personal souvenir of the deceased? 
What we believe to be George Washington's hair was sent out to The Department of Environmental Sciences in Charlottesville, Virginia and the FBI laboratories in 1999 to undergo various tests to determine the genetics of its former “owner”. Unfortunately, there was not enough hair to come to a positive conclusion and although more tests could have been done it would have put the hair sample at risk.  The decision was made to preserve the remaining strands. But the tests done on the hair sample did reveal some other useful information. It provided us with the diet of the owner which included wheat, beans, corn, meat, and a small amount of fish, a diet similar to that of a modern man.
The next question surrounding the mysterious sample of hair was whether or not it was indeed given to Alexander Hamilton, and why.  Throughout time the observation of mourning a lost loved one has been practiced differently.  Starting in the late 16th century people began to memorialize their deceased friends and family members through the wearing of mourning rings. This practice evolved into the creation of other mourning jewelry constructed out of the lately departed’s hair. The hair then would be constructed into bracelets or placed into broaches, rings and other fashionable pieces of jewelry to memorialize and act as a souvenir of the deceased to remind the living the importance of life. The practice became so popular among the wealthy during the colonial era that people would write into their last wills who would receive a mourning ring or sample of their hair upon their death.  
Although hair was also exchanged by young lovers during courtship as personal mementos it was more often used in ritual mourning, the practice reaching its height during the Victorian Era.  The end of the practice introduced a new era of mourning. The stoic response including, near indifference to the deceased with the wearing of bright colors in stark contrast to the mandatory wearing of black and mourning jewelry which would help delineate those in mourning and garner the proper respect.
While it is possible that the hair sample was given to Alexander Hamilton upon George Washington's death as a personal reminder of Washington's patronage of the young man, there is no evidence of such a bequeath in the former President's Will. Even though  Washington dedicated a section of his last testament to the creation and distribution of mourning rings to selected family members there is no mention of Hamilton. Hamilton served as aide-de-camp for Washington during the Revolutionary War and then Secretary of the Treasurer in Washington's cabinet but their relationship was strictly professional. Washington pursued a friendship with Hamilton but the latter made it perfectly clear in his correspondences with others  that he never returned the friendship only seeing Washington as a beneficial mentor for his own career, even having a falling out from the General over what many consider a petty fight. Regardless of the schism, Hamilton assisted Washington in the writing of his farewell address from his office as President and both remained close in their alliance as part of the new Federalist political party.   Upon the General's death Hamilton wrote a letter to Mrs. Washington sending his condolences. Notwithstanding the inconclusive answers to; whether or not the snippet was George Washington's hair and if he actually bequeathed it to Alexander Hamilton, common mourning practices at the time as well as Hamilton and Washington's close political relationship, suggests that it is indeed possible that Washington gave Hamilton the pieces of hair and that it came to Wilton through the suggested line of people. 

"1784: Death Comes to Wilton" Fall Exhibiition 2008, 2009, 2010. Exhibition Notes.

Hamilton, Alexander. "The Revolution 1781: Letter to Philip Schuyler February 18, 1781." In Alexander Hamilton Writings, by Joanne B. Freeman and The Library of America, distributed by Penguin Books, 93-96. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Harran, Susan and Jim. "Remembering A Loved One with Mourning Jewelry." Antique Week. Accessed May 1, 2010. Last modified December 1997.

Kerr, Donald M. "George Washington's Hair Sample." Donald M. Kerr to Sylvia B. Evans Ms., April 26, 1999.  Item file 1999.8. Wilton House Museum. 
Macko, Stephen A. "George Washington's Hair analysis." Stephen A. Macko to Sylvia Evans Ms., March 15, 1999.  Item file 1999.8. Wilton House Museum.
Melchor, Marilyn. "Aesthetic Appeal." Colonial Williamsburg. Accessed May 1, 2011. Last modified Spring 2003. 03/appeal.cfm.

Navarro, Irene Guggenheim. “Hairwork of the Nineteenth Century.” The Magazine Antiques Vol. 159, no. 4 (March 2001): 484-493.

Smigel, Barbara. "Unusual Organics." Barbara Smigel Info. Accessed May 1, 2011. Last modified 2008.
Thompson, Mary V. "The Lowest Ebb of Misery: Death and Mourning in the Family of George Washington."  Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Spring 2001.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Welcome to Wilton's blog!

Welcome to Found in the Collection, Wilton House Museum's blog dedicated to researching and discussing different objects and artifacts in Wilton's collection.  With a collection of over 1500 objects—ranging in size from a strand of hair to the historic house--not everything is on display in the historic house.  We'll explore the object's history as well as their possible connection to the house and the Randolph family.  Check back every other week for a new item!

Wilton is an authentic lower James River plantation house that was built between 1750 – 1753, by William Randolph III.  Wilton was the centerpiece of a 2,000 acre tobacco plantation and home to the Randolph family for more than a century.  It was here that they entertained George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette.  This impressive example of Georgian architecture was saved from destruction by the Virginia Society of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in 1933 and was carefully moved and reconstructed on its current site.

To learn more about Wilton House Museum and what is happening here today, visit our website or follow us on Facebook.