Monday, August 10, 2009
She had a way with hair
By Scott Beveridge
DONORA, Pa. – The historical society in this town doesn’t know Mrs. Koehler’s first name, but it keeps her dead relatives’ hair preciously preserved under a glass dome.
The woman took the Victorian art of weaving such hair into art to a higher level by turning it into intricate flowers, sprays and springing doodads attached to an 18-inch-tall black wooden cross.
“It just gets creepier and creepier,” a volunteer said last week at the Donora Historical Society’s museum at 595 McKean Ave. where the sculpture is proudly displayed near the front door.
This type of folk art became widely popular in the late 1800s when people seemed to care more about how they wore their grief in public than about returning to a normal life following the death of a child or spouse.
So while British Queen Victoria made mourning fashionable by wearing black clothes every day after her husband died, her many adoring fans opted to turn the hair of their loved ones into jewelry or framed art.
Some of them created such things as a picture of a weeping willow tree leaning over a tomb, a crown or ribbons to adorn a photograph of the dearly departed.
We’ll probably never know why Mrs. Koehler left Donora, Pa., with this bizarre gewgaw or whom it was intended to memorialize.
The grand morbidity of this fashion, though, makes it clear why the art form fell completely out of style after cheap photographs made it much easier to remember the dead.