Humble Babble from a Bearded Man

 by Eric Todd, Program Facilitation Specialist

Four months ago, I began to grow my beard. To those who know me, this may not seem noteworthy, as I’ve had a beard off and on for several years. However, unlike previous beards, this one was not born in response to the cooling weather or the result if laziness or forgetting to charge my electric razor. No, this beard has a purpose. “What purpose?” you ask. Well, that story stretches back longer than my beard.

Last June, I began to work on the development of a new program for the museum, one dedicated to all things hair — the culture of hair, the science behind hair, the people who work with hair and even the weird, wild and unusual uses for hair (see hair wreaths or this blog post) would be included. We knew this would extend to facial hair, so someone — I wish I could remember who — said, “Hey, you should grow your beard out for the event.” This seemed like a good, or at least harmless, idea to me. The ultimate reason for growing the beard was not known at the time, but we were confident inspiration would strike.

Anyway, in early September, I happily retired my razor as planned. With shaving removed from my to-do list, my mind was free to concentrate on developing Curls, Cornrows and Comb-overs for the museum. My first task was to educate myself by exploring the world of hair.

Once immersed in this exploration, I was excited by what I found. I learned about the natural hair movement, the importance of understanding your hair texture and the connections between hair health and overall well-being. More importantly, I was able to speak with the experts who work in these areas. I was amazed by their passion and I was eager to invite them to the museum to share their knowledge with our visitors.

Through planning for this program, I met a hair historian who possesses a unique “hair-reading” skill. I can’t wait to see what my hair says about me! I have also heard a story or two from a Hoosier member of Beard Team USA, and I look forward to hearing more stories from his experiences competing in the World Beard and Moustache Championships in England and Alaska.

Personally, I’m hoping the event will introduce me to a new style, treatment or product that would work for me. You see, I have basically had the same haircut my entire life. Truth be told, I’ve long said that I want a bowl cut, but friends tell me this is no longer a fashionable look. And my pop culture comparison to wanting a haircut like Jonathan Taylor Thomas is apparently passé as well. Before embarrassing myself further, I should get to my point.

As 2010 wound down and my mind was occupied by things such as making your own moustache, the load bearing capacity of human hair and debating which celebrities have the most recognizable do’s (come to the event, you’ll see it all), I had largely forgotten that the hair on my face was growing for a reason. You can’t blame me for forgetting; I have not trimmed, clipped or, frankly, done much grooming to my facial hair in months.

However, the time has come for my beard to realize its purpose. Because the visitor is my top priority — or maybe because I was out of ideas — it was decided that I would let the public choose the fate of my facial hair. Below you will see a poll allowing you to vote on a beard style for me to wear to Curls, Cornrows and Comb-overs. Whether the decision to put my beard in the hands of others is inspiration or idiocy, of this I am unsure. Perhaps I’ll withhold judgment until I see the outcome of the vote. Or until I see the look on your face when I debut my new look on Jan. 29.

Brushing up on Victorian hair art

by Meredith McGovern, Collections Assistant

Remember the good ol’ days when your family would retreat to the parlor and relax by the fire —Dad reading the paper, you playing with your favorite doll, and Mom washing and bundling hair, brushing it out, and weaving it into a bracelet for you to wear? What … no? Sorry, I must be thinking of a Victorian family.

Hair bracelet, 1865 – 1880. Owned by Susan Spencer Merrill (1828-1911)

In the mid-19th century, many women put down their knitting needles or crochet hook and took up a new form of leisure — hair art. I know it sounds strange and probably gives some of us the heebie-jeebies, but the artist would collect hair from their family and friends and would braid or weave the strands into framed wreaths or jewelry, including blonde brooches, brunette bracelets and raven rings. The finished products, like the bracelet pictured below, served as sentimental, everyday reminders of loved ones, living or dead.

To prepare for an upcoming hair program at the Indiana State Museum (more on that later!), Gaby Kienitz, the Indiana State Museum’s textile conservator and craft extraordinaire, agreed to help me create a few bracelets by following patterns originally printed in a popular Victorian magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. We just needed to gather a few supplies: HAIR (!), a frame or hatbox to work the hair on, and weights to balance the strands. While Gaby built us a small table, I tasked myself with finding the hair. Victorian women spent a lot of time collecting, degreasing, detangling and bundling it. I took the easy route and opted not to snip my coworkers’ locks, although they eyeballed me suspiciously. I turned instead to a modern convenience — my local craft store. The doll wigs looked a bit unruly, so I settled on a skein of chestnut-colored yarn.

Meredith and Gaby channeling their Victorian ancestors.

Supplies in hand, Gaby and I donned our corsets and hoops skirts (not really, but our Victorian counterparts did — sorry, ladies, we feel your pain!) and sectioned off “hair” on the table, crossing it from bottom to top around a tube, clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the pattern. At first it was difficult. We tried using embroidery floss that proved too fine and a jute twine that was too stiff. The yarn was easiest to weave and held the form of the bracelet best. We found out that the Victorian magazine wasn’t kidding when it instructed its readers to weight the hair. Without weights, our product looked uneven, lopsided and sad. However, before long we got into a groove and started chatting about the same things I’m sure the Victorian artists did — cats, dental work, New Year’s plans and varicose veins. Soon we had several bracelets and chains. Our finished products might not make us misty-eyed over a friend or relative, but they do make a nice lanyard or chain for our museum employee IDs.

The finished products.

Come to the Indiana State Museum for Curls, Cornrows & Comb-overs on Saturday, Jan. 29 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to check out 19th-century examples of hair art like the one pictured above. I’ll be there taking another stab at a bracelet of my own. You can also learn about the science and culture of hair from a wide array of hair experts and enjoy hands-on activities.