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This image shows the book cover for George Washington's Hair featuring a black background with white text and an outline of Washington's hair.
George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders by Keith Beutler

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Whether the idea of cherishing a lock of George Washington’s hair as a treasure seems exciting or creepy to you, there are many locks of his hair in museum collections around the country. The Museum, for example, has eight locks of hair purported to be from Washington’s head. In George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders, Keith Beutler explores the meanings that these souvenir locks held for the Revolutionary generation and beyond. He contextualizes the preservation of Washington’s hair by focusing on a specific person in each chapter — two from the 1790s and three from the 1820s — as he traces how Washington and the Revolutionary generation were remembered.  

Beutler points out that memory theory in the 1820s prioritized the sensory perception of physical objects, including relics, that were accessible to everyone, no matter their gender, race, or class. Among the five individuals that he focuses on, one is an African American Revolutionary War veteran and another is a schoolmistress. In the excerpt below, read more about Washington’s headquarters tent, which is on display at the Museum, and the start of the travels of several other Washington relics through time.  

Excerpt

Washington himself realized well before his 1799 death that ordinary objects associated with him were becoming invested by his admirers with extraordinary significance. At the close of the Revolution, he thus presented his corresponding secretary Richard Varrick with the camp bed in which he had slept at Valley Forge – a memento that Varrick’s progeny reverently preserved for generations. By the mid-1820s, another relic, an old military field tent, retained by Washington heir George Washington Parke Custis, was being celebrated in the press as “THE TENT OF WASHINGTON.” Its postwar career was variegated: it was used to shelter Lafayette during his memory tour, for the funeral of a murdered Federalist, General James Lingan, and as a venue for “the distribution of the first prizes given in America for the best specimens of sheep.” On one occasion, prominent Yale University chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, a devoted Protestant evangelical, who as such might have been expected to regard relics as “popish,” was permitted by Custis to see “the material” remains of the tent. “Not content with” the “gratifications of sight and touch” that Custis meant to allow, the professor earnestly “insisted on being completely enveloped in the canvass, which was accordingly done.” 

[…] 

In the 1820s, interest in hair reliquary was intense – though enthusiasm for collecting samples of Washington’s tresses went back even further. In March of 1778, one of the general’s aides forwarded a lock of his hair from Valley Forge to a female admirer. Five years later, Washington concluded a letter to Andrew Billings – a Poughkeepsie, New York, watchmaker and the general’s sometime dentist: “Mrs. Washington sends a lock of both our hair (Inclosed).” On 17 December 1799, three days after Washington had died, his former assistant, Tobias Lear, recorded in his diary: “The body was laid in the Coffin – at which time I cut off some of the hair.” Less than a month later, members of the Grand Lodge of Masons of Massachusetts, which, like Hamet Achmet in the 1830s, possessed a sword of Washington’s and clothing that he had once worn, wrote to Martha Washington, informing her that “a Golden Urn” would soon “be prepared” by the Lodge “as a deposit for a lock of hair, an invaluable relique of the Hero and the Patriot, whom their wishes would immortalize, and that” should the “favour [of a gift of a bit of the dead general’s hair] be granted, Madam, it will be cherished as the most precious jewel in the cabinet of the Lodge.” At Martha Washington’s direction, Tobias Lear forwarded “a lock of her deceased Husband’s hair” to the lodge, members of which subsequently held a mock funeral in which they bent “with anguish over the urn” into which they had placed the first president’s tresses.

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Later, in 1824, a Washington heir wrote to a friend in Philadelphia, requesting that a breastpin be made to hold entwined strands of his famous forebearers. Designed as a gift for George Washington Lafayette, the marquis’s son, it was to have the enclosed hair of George and Martha Washington affixed in its center and surrounded “with good pearls” set “in the best manner.” On the provenance of the pile, the letter explained: “The General’s hair was cut off in ’76…,” and advised, “It will be as well not to say, perhaps,…whose hair it is[,] as it is now so scarce an article.” One year later, in 1825, while taking a political swipe at John Quincy Adams for purportedly stealing the presidency from Andrew Jackson in a “corrupt” electoral “bargain,” a news account alluded to Jackson’s possession of a ring “With…the hair of Washington ‘of the colour it was when he led our armies to Victory.’” How, the newspaper asked, could Jackson regret his loss in a presidential context so notoriously stained by Adams’s use of “’Bargain and Barter’”? In 1826, the Middlesex Gazette […] reported enthusiastically on George Washington Parke Custis’s gift of a lock of his namesake’s hair to Simón Bolivar, the “George Washington of South America.” 

Three years later, in 1829, John Pierre – who would soon provide John Fanning Watson with Washington locks – donated a shock of the general’s hair to the Library Company of Philadelphia. Subsequently, that institution […] displayed the tresses […] The symbolic exhibit, literally locating a part of Washington’s body amid physical reminders of that Founder’s material effects, relied concretely upon what an essayist had argued in principle of The Polyanthos in 1807: humans tended to remember something most clearly when it was associated mentally with a particular “locality” or “spot,” and that principle was so “extensive in its influence” that it held even for portable loci, such as “a lock of hair.” 

Keith Beutler, George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021), pages 71, 72-73. 

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