Hair art: a personal gift for some early North Dakotans, still being preserved today

Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 8:41 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - A “bad hair day” is a common term people use when they don’t think they look their best. Studies have found the average American woman spends a full 10 days a year, curling, combing, and fixing their hair.

During the Victorian Era, women would spend months crafting “hair art.”

Imagine a friend giving you a lock of their hair, then asking you to make it into a piece of art. In the late 1800s, when North Dakota was being settled by pioneers, it wasn’t such a strange gift. In fact, it was considered quite personal.

“You’d give a lock of your hair to your friend, and they would make jewelry or one of these wreathes with it, and it’s really just a sentimental personal memory of your family, of a person,” said Lori Nohner, assistant curator of collections in the Audience Engagement and Museum Division at the State Historical Society.

Lori Nohner says this type of activity would have been reserved for middle-class families. Besides added costs for tools and supplies, it would have required lots of free time.

“You think about how dark it is in North Dakota in the wintertime. As we all know, candles and oil cost money, so did they have the money to keep the house lit to do crafts like this,” said Nohner.

While this craft may not have come back around like knitting or crocheting, stylists like Malarie Fergel say some clients do get emotionally attached to hair extensions, and actually go through a small mourning phase when it’s time to give them a rest.

“I feel like they have a little bit of sentimentality with their extensions sometimes. They purchase it, it’s expensive, it’s an investment, and then when it’s time to get rid of that extension, like repurchase a new one, it’s kind of sad to see that go,” said Fergel.

She also says she knows of mothers who will save a lock of hair from their baby’s first haircut to put in a memory book.

Clients at salons still spend hours fashioning their hair, but the main change over the course of the past 100 years is the focus, with more emphasis and time put on follicles that are still attached to people’s heads.

The Hair Art Exhibit items are not currently on display at the Heritage Center, but you can read more about it in their blog post on their website.