Opening Up Presidential Archives

By: Carolyn Belardo

In this presidential primary season, the hair of a particular candidate has generated outsized attention and inspired countless memes. The public’s fascination with the wind-whipped comb-over has hardly abated as we hurtle toward the political conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland, Ohio, in July.

Presidential locks aside, human hair in general also fascinated early Americans in the centuries leading up to the 20th. People from all walks of life liked to collect snippets of hair from family members, spouses, friends and famous people as sentimental keepsakes. Many times the delicate shearing took place after the person died.

One avid collector was Philadelphia attorney, naturalist and all-round hair enthusiast Peter Arrell Browne (1762–1860). His assiduous collecting amounted to a dozen bound albums of human and animal hair, including tresses from the nation’s earliest presidents.

These albums were given to the Academy upon his death and have remained in the archives and available to researchers ever since.

Presidential Archives
It’s personal: Locks from Presidents Washington and John Adams; a letter from President Teddy Roosevelt; President Ulysses Grant’s Academy membership card; mastodon teeth and fossils belonging to Thomas Jefferson. Photo by Lauren Duguid/ANS

One avid collector was Philadelphia attorney, naturalist and all-round hair enthusiast Peter Arrell Browne (1762–1860). His assiduous collecting amounted to a dozen bound albums of human and animal hair, including tresses from the nation’s earliest presidents. These albums were given to the Academy upon his death and have remained in the archives and available to researchers ever since.

The Academy will display a small portion of this collection July 1 through 29 to join the city in marking the Democratic National Convention, set for Philadelphia July 25–28.

The locks of five presidents representing various political parties—the nonprofit Academy is nonpartisan—as well as a letter from Theodore Roosevelt and rare fossils that belonged to Thomas Jefferson will be on view in Presidential Archives: Letters, Hair, and Fossils.

This will be only the second time in memory that the Academy will put the hair from the presidents on public display. The first time was in 2008, another presidential election year.

“It may seem like an odd hobby today, but it was quite common for people to keep hair clippings from their loved ones in lockets, brooches, rings, and pins in Victorian times,” said Academy Senior Fellow and historian Robert Peck.

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Under the wig: A lock from President George Washington. ANS Archives.

Browne’s collection includes not only ringlets from Presidents George Washington to Martin Van Buren (he’s No. 8), but also hair organized by mammal group, ethnic group, and famous people, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Daniel Webster. “Apparently no one thought to include a lock from Mr. Browne himself,” Peck said.

Presidential Archives lets visitors examine the hair strands from Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. The exhibit also includes exceptional fossils collected by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for Jefferson, whose passion for science led him to become president of the American Philosophical Society for many years and a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Jefferson believed all presidents should have an interest in science, and he became an avid fossil collector. He gave his fossils to the philosophical society in Philadelphia, which in the mid-1800s sent them to the Academy when the society removed itself from the business of maintaining collections of natural history specimens.

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The hair from John Adams, our second president. ANS Archives.

Some of these fossils will be on display for this special exhibit, including partial skulls from an extinct bison, stag moose and musk ox; a mastodon jaw; a megalodon (giant extinct shark) tooth inscribed by Jefferson; and the claws of an extinct ground sloth that Jefferson brought to the attention of a notable physician who later named the animal after the president, Megalonyx jeffersonii.

Peck has written to the White House seeking a curl from President Obama, and he’s hoping Bill Clinton will stop by the Academy to see the exhibit in late July if he comes to Philly with Hillary. “My shears are ready, if our former president is willing,” said Peck.

For more information about the hair albums, visit the Academy’s website.

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