Gifting someone a lock of your hair might seem a bit odd today. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, hair was a perfectly normal keepsake to give to friends, romantic partners, and the relatives in charge of your family’s hair wreath.
Hair was also a souvenir you might want from someone you admired, like a president. Strands from George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln still survive around the country. Recently, another piece of Washington’s mane popped up in a 1793 almanac at a college library in Schenectady, New York.
Union College researchers discovered the hair while taking the library’s inventory. They say this particular clip from Washington—born on February 22, 1732—seems to have been passed down through the families of Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton.
According to the college’s press release, the almanac probably belonged to Eliza’s brother, Philip Jeremiah Schuyler (their father, Philip John Schuyler, was one of Union College’s founders). Between the pages, researchers found an envelope containing Washington’s hair. The notes written on this envelope implied that Eliza had given the hair to her son James, and that James given it to his granddaughters. However, it’s not clear how the envelope ended up inside the almanac, and how the almanac make it to the college’s library.
To assess the hair’s authenticity, Union College sent photos of the six-inch strands and the materials they were found with to John Reznikoff, a manuscripts and documents dealer who also has a huge collection of famous people’s hair. Reznikoff has locks from John F. Kennedy, Napoléon Bonaparte, and Ludwig van Beethoven. He even has a sample of Lincoln’s hair with dried pieces of brain matter stuck to it, since it was plucked after John Wilkes Booth shot him in the head.
In addition, Reznikoff has hair from George Washington, whose locks were probably the most widely distributed of any president’s. Unlike many men of his era, Washington didn’t wear a wig (that’s his real hair you see on the one dollar bill). The Smithsonian Institution and the Academy of Natural Sciences both have locks of his hair. The first president’s Mount Vernon home and museum in Virginia also houses about four dozen samples of his hair; some of it set in jewelry, as was popular at the time.
So in Reznikoff’s opinion, did the almanac hair really come from the head of George Washington?
“Without DNA, you’re never positive, but I believe it’s 100 percent authentic,” Reznikoff said, according to the college’s press release. “It’s not hugely valuable, maybe two to three thousand dollars for the strands you have.” For comparison, a lock of Thomas Jefferson’s hair sold for $6,875 in 2016, while a lock of Lincoln’s fetched $25,000 the year before.
“But,” he says, “it’s undoubtedly George Washington’s.”