Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Locks of Hair - December 10, 2013

December 10, 2013

Locks of human hair have been kept as keepsakes for thousands of years.  This was usually practiced for several reasons: superstition, religious or sentimental.  Certainly it was much more common a hundred or more years ago but is virtually unknown in present times.  

Recently someone came into the museum to show me locks of hair that a female relative had put together of her children, herself, and husband as a keepsake dated from 1868. The locks were tied together with thread and sown along a sheet of paper to keep them all together.  The top of the paper is in two pieces that were sewn together when the locks of hair were attached to the paper as a group.  The bottom part of the paper is in two loose pieces.  The shapes suggest that they were torn apart as it was folded and unfolded over time.  Several types and colours of thread were used.  Near each cluster of hair was the person's first name in very fine ink writing.  It was likely done using a nib pen and ink well.  The handwriting was somewhat difficult to read due to the fading, creases, missing paper, and penmanship of the time.  The penmanship in my view is very beautiful but not something we are so familiar with in current times so a little more difficult to read.  However with the use of a magnifying glass and careful unfolding we were able to make out all the names.  Fortunately, the date 1868 is clearly shown which also coincided with the owner's family information on birth dates of the children whose hair was collected.  For example, one child was not included because they weren't born until after 1868 but all those born in that year and before were included so we could verify the date was correct.  It was also exciting to see that some of the writing on the back clearly was practice in forming some elaborate letters of the alphabet and words.  The author obviously was very concerned with penmanship which was an important part of education at the time.

Locks of hair - front
Locks of hair - back
Above are two photographs of the locks of hair as it was presented to me - front and back.  The hair appears to be in very good condition but I noticed that hair strands will come loose so any handling introduces a risk of loosing a few strands each time...not a good thing!  The paper is brittle and writing is faded.  Faded writing is common with the types of ink used in 1868 as is brittle paper from that time.  Having photographs will preserve the writing as of the date of the photograph.  One can try adjusting the contrast and brightness in the photographs with photo processing software to get the writing to be easier to read.

From a conservation point of view, here is what I recommend:

  • try to avoid handling it as much as possible.  It is brittle and might break apart further and loose hair strands or bits of the paper.
  • store it in a location where it will not be exposed to higher humidity or increased or constant exposure to light.  Both will hasten deterioration over time.  If storing in a mylar envelope keep it in a dark location when not being shown such as a drawer.
  • store it in an acid free envelope if you wish to keep it without showing or handling OR use a mylar envelope which allows others to see it.
  • if it is a larger piece, use an acid free backing board in the mylar envelope to eliminate the chance of it getting bent or folded .  This means only one side is visible (pick the best side!) but a photograph of the other side can be kept nearby but not in the envelope.
  • mylar envelopes can be cut down to the size of each of the pieces so that it will not slide around.   Although this stores each of the pieces separately it means you don't need the backing board.   Otherwise you might have to attach it to the acid free backing board which is a challenge to avoid damage so don't recommend it.  Since this example comes in three pieces I suggest cutting the envelopes and backing paper down to size rather than trying to attach the pieces to the backing board.  Ordinary tape, perhaps see-through, on the outside can be used to close off any edges cut open.
  • do not store it with any other objects such as other sheets of paper unless they are acid free materials.

It is possible to get mylar envelopes and acid free backing board from comic shops locally.  Contact the shop owner and ask them if they are willing to sell you a few of each.  I think getting two or three mylar envelopes and two or three acid free backing boards which will be not so much money is a good idea then you can cut them down in size or work with them to show off the hair locks in the best condition.  Whatever is left over can be used to store other important, older family documents.

Conservation Tips
Mylar envelopes are used to store papers and other flat objects because mylar is less likely to react to the materials stored in them.  Some plastics are not chemically inert.  That is, they may give off gases that mixed with moisture produce varying levels of acid or react negatively to some materials.  Mylar is certainly much more chemically stable and prevent odours and other gasses from penetrating to the interior.  Acid free paper for storage of most objects is useful again for the same reason that it will not give off harmful gases.  Avoid excessive handling of brittle objects of this type.  The less handling the better.

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