Indulge Your Hair Obsession

Americans have been curious about presidential hair since long before the combover became a thing. Now there is a new exhibit, a new book, and a free talk at the Academy in which to indulge our obsession.

In a rare exhibit of a unique collection, the Academy is creating an intimate display of five 19th-century albums containing samples of human and animal hair, including locks from among the first 14 U.S. presidents. The exhibit opens Wednesday, Nov. 14, for a limited time.

Sample of hair from President Thomas Jefferson.

The fascinating display coincides with a free Academy Town Square talk and book signing by Academy Senior Fellow Robert McCracken Peck entitled “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Peck is the author of the new book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne, about one man’s obsession with collecting hair from not only presidents but from a wide range of people and animals, all in the name of scientific research.

The display of pages from the albums and Peck’s richly illustrated Academy Town Square presentation are based on Browne’s hair and fur collection. In his book, Peck describes why and how the priceless albums were assembled and what information their contents provide about life on earth.

The talk starts at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14; Peck will sign copies of his book afterward. The talk is free, but registration is required to ensure a seat. To register, visit ansp.org at https://bit.ly/2NSX4D8.

The spine of one of Browne’s hair albums.

One Curious Collection

Peter A. Browne (1782–1860) was an amateur naturalist who believed hair was a physical attribute that might be able to unravel the mystery of human evolution, according to Peck, who has written numerous books and is also the Academy’s curator of art and artifacts. Browne spent years collecting dozens of human hair samples and animal hair and fur, eventually amassing the largest known study collection of human hair.

His albums contain locks from doctors, financiers, writers, artists, prisoners, and 13 of the first 14 presidents of the United States. Collecting samples of hair from human heads may seem weird by today’s standards, but the locks of family and friends were commonly exchanged throughout the 1800s.

“Hair was often framed, kept in albums or featured in jewelry,” Peck says. “Today many parents still retain the hair from their child’s first haircut, but it is rarely put on public display as it was during the Victorian era.”

In Browne’s day, scientists around the world considered his expanding hair collection important for research, and the naturalist himself referred to it as a “national collection.” It contained not just the hair of humans (famous and otherwise), but the wool of sheep and the fur and hair of many other mammals.

Peck describes the various hair samples as “landmarks in the history of life,” especially today when DNA contained in the hair can tell us much about the individuals and groups represented.

Browne bequeathed his collection to the Academy, where it has been carefully preserved for more than 150 years.

Sample of hair from George Washington.

About the Exhibit

Starting Nov. 14 and through Sunday, March 24, five albums and sheets of hair samples will be displayed, including one presidential lock at a time. Every three weeks, staff will lift the glass from the two cases and turn the pages of the albums to a different page so that none are exposed to light for too long, which could cause damage to the delicate hair and sheets of paper.

The hair samples that will be shown will be announced on the Academy’s social media channels. Visitors can watch the pages being rotated and chat with the Academy’s archivist.

The exhibit marks only the third known time that the museum has put the locks of the presidents on display. The first time was for a weekend in 2008 during the presidential election year, and the second time was for the month of July 2016 when Philadelphia hosted the Democratic National Convention.

A lock from Emperor General Napoleon Bonaparte.

About Academy Town Square

The Academy Town Square series is dedicated to providing relevant educational content to the public on issues of climate change, water, evolution, and biodiversity and extinction. To learn more about where the Academy stands on these important issues, visit ansp.org at https://bit.ly/2OjBa0g.

 

Photos by Rosamond Purcell from Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne.

Post by Carolyn Belardo

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