IU's Lilly Library home to famous authors' hair

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by Katie Chrisco, courtesy of Indiana Daily Student

Although the antiquated tradition of people sending locks of hair to their loved ones died out in the 20th century, the Lilly Library (IN) has acquired notable locks of hair since the library's establishment in 1960. 

Among the books and rare manuscripts in the Lilly Library are collections from authors Edgar Allen Poe and Sylvia Plath. These collections also include locks of their hair. 

Reference associate Sarah Mitchell said J.K. Lilly Jr., the library’s namesake, collected the Poe hair. The Poe collection was acquired in 1956 before the library was even built. 

“It’s really interesting,” she said. “I mean, it’s something that either really grosses people out or really fascinates them.” 

The Lilly Library’s associate director Erika Dowell said the Plath collection was purchased from Plath's mother, and also included a lot of her childhood greeting cards, papers and letters. While most people kept just a small lock of hair, she said Plath’s mother kept both smaller locks as well as a larger ponytail of her daughter’s hair.

“She was maybe a little bit more sentimental about stuff like that than most people,” Dowell said. “I think that most people would think it strange to find that your mom or dad had kept a lock of your baby hair or something. But to see a lock of baby hair plus a maybe a ponytail that you got cut off when you were ten, may be excessive to many people today.”

Dowell said other past uses of hair included hair jewelry, which was popular during the Victorian period. 

“If your sister died or something, you would take her hair and weave it into an interesting pattern and wear it as a pin to remember them by,” she said. “And it’s something that also seems very strange and weird to us today to think about.”

Although the Lilly Library doesn’t have any jewelry made of hair, the second lock of Poe’s hair owned by the library is encased in a pearl-ringed brooch. 

Michell said Poe sent one of the locks of hair to a woman who was trying to break up with him.

According to an article on the Lilly Library’s website written by Lilly's head of public services, Rebecca Baumann, Poe sent the lock to brief fiancee Sarah Helen Whitman, though she destroyed most of the letter he sent with it. 

“It didn’t work out for him,” Mitchell said. “She wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, hair,’ maybe I’ll stick around.” 

In addition to Poe and Plath’s hair, the library also has locks of hair from ordinary people, Mitchell said. 

“If someone sent a lock of hair and a letter a lot of time it’s still there,” she said. “And then we also have scrapbooks and memorabilia of various families, so if someone saved their personal effects especially among their papers, it’s here.”

Dowell said hair is not an uncommon thing to find among someone’s letters from the past, though it seems strange in the modern age. 

“I think that’s the way people think about it today, as a little creepy,” she said