Tuft act to follow: Collecting presidential locks long out of style

Listen

When the Democratic National Convention opens in Philadelphia later this month, many people will be scrambling for keepsakes to remember that time when national politics was literally within arm’s reach.

Buttons, stickers, coffee cups, T-shirts, bottle openers, shot glasses, lip balm, toe bags.

Add to the list: hair.

Once upon a time in America you could write to your president, requesting of lock of his hair. And he would write back, tucking a tress into the envelope.

This was not weird.

“Hair was a keepsake,” said Jennifer Vess, an archivist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. “Before photography was common, before it was inexpensive enough for everyone to have it, a lock of hair was an easy way to remember somebody personal, or to have something of somebody who was important.”

The academy has one of the largest collections of presidential hair. Every president from #1 George Washington to #15 James Buchanan (with the exception of #13 Millard Fillmore) is represented in the historic hair collection of Peter Arrell Browne, a Philadelphia lawyer who died in 1860.

Browne collected about 100 samples of hair, including that of 14 presidents. He managed to get a decent sample from John Quincy Adams, who was mostly bald. He also had a generous hunk of Andrew Jackson’s thick, silvery mane, which was popular with the ladies.

For Browne, hair was both a keepsake and a scientific vehicle. With a microscope, he analyzed hair from prominent men and from average men, trying to discover the difference.

“In the Victorian era, everything was a hierarchy — we should be able to compare everything. We should be able to tell who is better, and who is not,” said Vess. “He felt he could do this with hair.”

That thinking is dated. Modern science gives no credibility to linking anatomy with moral or intellectual capacity. However, Browne’s close examinations of human hair was a precursor of modern forensic science.

Outside of sentimental mothers and crime scene investigators, few people collect hair anymore. Nevertheless, the Academy of Natural Science, as a collecting institution, has done its due diligence. It sent requests to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton for a lock of their hair to add to the collection when the current and former presidents are in town for the DNC.

So far, no reply.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.