The Story of Hair Wreaths and Death Culture

 Death is an inevitable experience. In many cultures around the world, death is seen not as an end of the living soul but as a transcendence into a form incomprehensible to those still on Earth. Although their mortal body is gone, their spirit remains and, in some cases, assists with continuing to guide their living relatives. In other cases, their spirit awaits their relatives in paradise without pain, suffering, or earthly woes. Although these ideas have remained since the beginning of many cultures or religious practices, the concept of grief and mourning persists despite this knowledge. Retaining relics of those departed has been a practice that became most popular in the early nineteenth century. Victorian death culture combined both subcultures of evangelicalism and spiritualism and these subcultures created a material link between the living and the dead. As relic culture became increasingly popular a booming industry developed, caused by hair wreath relics specifically. A hair wreath was usually created in honor of a departed loved one, with their hair acting as the most important component. To regulate the amount of human hair used within a hair wreath, horse hair would be incorporated to fill in gaps within the work. Most hair wreaths incorporated floral designs, with the hair being formed into flower shapes with the help of metal wire. The patterns would differ between families, however, the general shape, a horseshoe, which was the Victorian motif for good luck, would be formed upwards, towards the Christian theory of ‘heaven’. This also symbolized that, for some of those who believed, one day they will meet again.

The Hoover-Minthorn House Museum in Newberg, Oregon was once home to Henry John and Laura Minthorn and their children. Henry Minthorn, known by many in the city of Newberg, was the first superintendent of the Friends Pacific Academy which today is known as George Fox University. Before this, the family had previously lived in Forest Grove, Oregon where Henry was the headmaster of the Forest Grove Indian and Industrial Training School, later renamed the Chemawa Indian SchoolAlthough no longer in Forest Grove, the Chemawa Indian School continues to operate today in Salem, Oregon. Henry John and Laura Minthorn, at the time of living in Forest Grove, were the parents of three young children. Tennesse, Benjamin, and Gertrude, oldest to youngest respectively. Benjamin Bruce Minthorn was the only biological son of Henry John and Laura Minthorn. Born September 23, 1878 in West Branch, Iowa, Benjamin eventually traveled with his parents and older sister to Oregon in 1882 to where, as previously stated, his father had procured a job at the Forest Grove Indian and Industrial Training School.

“While the work for the government met with immediate and substantial success, to the family it was personally and tragically saddened by the accidental death of their only son, aged six.”

Doctor Henry John Minthorn: A Biographical Sketch, Page 10, Mary

[Minthorn] Stretch.

Within the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum hangs a hair wreath relic in the receiving room atthe front of the house. Intricate, woven flowers that differ in size and shape decorate the ‘w’ shaped armature. The flowers are made out of both human and animal hair, which creates the varying textures and colors amongst the flowers. Some portions of the hair wreath are darker in color, while others are lighter. Normally, the hair within the center of the hair wreath would be that one the departed loved one. Family photos, though popular amongst the middle-class, were few and far between. Owning and maintaining a camera of any kind was extremely expensive and more commonly, a family would pay a fee to a professional photographer to take photos. However, a simple photo did not hold the spiritual value that a hair wreath relic would. Much like today where someone would keep a memento of a departed loved one, such as a watch, a shirt, a hat, etc., which acted as a link between them, in the nineteenth century hair wreath relics held the hidden story of the departed, from birth to death, and helped those who remained on Earth accept their death. In the journal The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture, author Deborah Lutz explains that the relics created after death, which possessed a piece of their beloved, linked the lost body with the living. She continues to say that: “In the rich backdrop of sorrow and death, the lock of hair, now a relic, shines out with meaning and love…”

In the simplest of terms, it gave the bereaved proof that the person, and their impact on the world, truly did exist. Although history has seemingly forgotten about young Benjamin Bruce Minthorn, the presence and preservation of a hair wreath within the Hoover-Minthorn House Museum shows us that those who loved him the most never forgot him or the love they held for him.

Written by: Payton Madarieta