An Experiment in Digital Resources

For this blog we were to search a topic pertinent to our upcoming digital history project in a variety of online resources, specifically Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and a popular search engine, then compare the results to an academic treatment of the same topic. In my case I have chosen “hairwork” as my search term. Hairwork is a term used to describe artistic items crafted using, historically, human hair. Hairwork was especially popular during the nineteenth century in Europe and America and many examples remain in tact due to hair’s natural durability. So, let’s see what our resources have to say about this historically popular craft.

A stunning bracelet crafted from human hair. This piece is a part of the Leila’s Hair Museum collection. Click the image to visit the gallery portion of the museum’s website.

Wikipedia

We have read much about Wikipedia in the past few weeks, both positive and negative. A search for “hairwork” leads the user to the page “Hair Jewellery.” In regards to Wikipedia, I tend to side with those who wrote responses to Jared Lanier’s “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”, rather than with Lanier, in thinking that Wikipedia is more a force for good with open and easily understood inner workings. In the case of “Hair Jewellery,” however, Wikipedia is severely lacking. The article focuses primarily on the broad use of hair in various crafts throughout history and its symbolic meaning therein, while briefly discussing the popularity of hairwork during the Victorian era. The article has no sources, is rather poorly written, and has no real organization. A peek at the View History page shows that Wikipedians have been editing the article for seven years and several editors have noted major changes they made regarding everything from the use of first person language, the removal of irrelevant information, and a minor debate about the spelling of “jewellery” vs “jewelry.” Frankly, this makes me a little concerned with what the original article looked like and the page itself warns readers that “(t)his article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay.” Not a great source for anyone attempting to do academic work on this topic at the moment.

(P.S. The bad thing about learning how to edit Wikipedia is the urge to change poorly done articles of interest and distract oneself from other tasks at hand. Case in point, I just couldn’t resist the urge to edit it, so this particular article now looks slightly improved but still needs further additions in terms of academic sources. I’ll probably edit it again once I get all my research done for this digital project and have a more firm grasp of the literature.)

“A hair brooch in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.” From the Wikipedia article “Hair Jewellery.”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Lanier worries in his piece about the loss of an individual authors voice through the use of crowd sourced sites like Wikipedia versus the tried and true reference resources like Encyclopedia Britannica. In this case, however, the Wikipedia article features a bit too much of the primary author’s voice while Encyclopedia Britannica remains entirely silent. A search for “hairwork,” “hair jewelry,” and the like pulls up nothing more than a scientific explanation of what hair is and various insects and animals with “hair” or “hairy” in their common name. This of course speaks to the limitations of older reference sources when it comes to niche topics which may not be popular enough to warrant paying an author to define.

Google

In his article, “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now,” Marshall Poe hopes to convince historians of the need to create academic space on the web for their topics of interest. He states, “Google your own topic of research and review the top results. Likely you will see a Wikipedia entry and a collection of putatively educational sites, all of which are selling something.”1  Indeed, in the case of hairwork, this description of likely Google search results is still spot on five years after Poe’s article was written. The top search result is hairwork.com a largely disorganized looking site dominated by ads for various books, tools, and supplies for the art of hairwork. If you need a forum to find buyers for your own hair, then look no further! Among the ads and sales there are links to other interesting resources; for instance, one can navigate to a section full of collector’s stories. One of these collectors is Leila Cohoon who runs Leila’s Hair Museum. There are also links to a blog post about hairwork, the site of a historical re-enactor who does hairwork, and other similar enthusiast sites. One exception is a Project Gutenburg text of an 1867 instructional hairwork book.

Another piece from the Leila’s Hair Museum collection. This one is a decorative piece meant to be displayed under a glass dome. Click the image to visit the image gallery for Leila’s Hair Museum.

Academic Perspective

Locating an academic article was a bit of a challenge as well. JSTOR offered only reviews of the few books that have written about hairwork and other suggested sites come up with nothing relevant. Eventually through a hit on Google Scholar and then a trip to the library website, I located an intriguingly relevant piece. Helen Sheumaker’s “‘This Lock You See’: Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self” offers an academic understanding of the use of hair in sentimental crafts of the nineteenth-century. While the enthusiast or “amateur” sites discussed above primarily focus on how hairwork was made and share past and present images of the craft, Sheumaker focuses on the ever-important academic question of “why” various crafts made with human hair took on a special meaning during the Victorian period. Sheumaker states “(i)t was precisely these aspects of hair-its seemingly stable individuality, its fragility wedded with materiality, its transcendence-that nineteenth-century American found so compelling.”2

Conclusion

This exercise leads me to an important conclusion. There is clearly a niche interest on the web for better understanding this type of craft work. Current sites offer how-to information along with stunning examples, but they lack in an academic grounding. If a history teacher or professor wanted to use hairwork as a visually engaging tool to help explain the sentimentality of the nineteenth century, there would be no “one-stop-shop” website to which they could turn. I believe this both highlights the continuing divide between academic and “amateur” sites online, while also making the need for a hybrid site on such a topic clear.

A brooch made of two sisters' hair. Item from the Minnesota Historical Society's collection. Click the image to visit the item's catalog record.

A brooch made of two sisters’ hair. Item from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection. Click the image to visit the item’s catalog record.

Footnotes

1. Marshall Poe, “Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now,” Historically Speaking 10, 2 (2009), 22. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/historically_speaking/v010/10.2.poe.html

2. Helen Sheumaker, “‘This Lock You See’: Nineteenth-Century Hair Work as the Commodified Self,” Fashion Theory 1, 4 (1997), 422.

 

Advertisements

Politically Curly

After reading the prompt for this week’s blog, I decided to watch Good Hair. I had seen clips, but never watched the entire movie so I rented it on Amazon. Now, I knew a little about black women’s hair from hair school; I’ve applied relaxers, hot ironed, curled, and set hair. But, that was just in school; for the most part the intricacies of weaves, updos, and complicated braids are well beyond my knowledge base. I think I was most surprised to learn how many of the celebrities had a full head weave; I assumed that many famous black women had expensively relaxed shining locks, perhaps bolstered by some tracks in there too. After hearing Reverend Al Sharpton get into the politics of spending money on products mainly owned by large, white-owned, companies and reading about Audrey Lorde’s experience in “Is Your Hair Still Political?” I began to think about famous black women who were known for their beautiful, natural, political, hair.

My mind instantly went to Erykah Badu.

Erykah Badu “Wrapped Up” in the 90s

From her iconic dreads and head wrap of the 90s, to her completely shaved, from her “supernatural” afros, to her impossibly long tresses of recent years, Erykah Badu has almost always rocked a natural style.

Glowing Fro

In this video Badu discusses how it isn’t necessarily the actual “realness” of the hair that you are wearing, more important is the fact that the style looks like something your hair could could naturally do. I take this to mean that the important part of having a natural looking style, the part that makes it political, is a person’s creation of their own identity which rejects unrealistic and “unnatural” standards.

Erykah Badu as the New Face of Givenchy

In an interview with the natural hair blogging “Curlologists,” Erykah Badu stated that while she believes “how you wear your hair is a political statement as well,” because “(p)retty much everything you do as a black woman is a political statement,” she doesn’t want to feel pressured to wear any particular style because “at that point I’d be putting myself into a penitentiary and that wouldn’t be a natural state!” After being asked what she thought of the “natural hair movement,” Badu said “I really don’t [think] a lot about how people wear their hair right now, cause I’d rather see a person with a natural mind and processed head than a processed mind and natural head.”

“Once it rains, then we’ll see who actually has “naturally” curly hair”

In conclusion, hair can certainly be a political statement. This is true for black women, like Audrey Lorde and Isis Brantley, Erykah Badu’s hairstylist who was forced to have her afro searched at the Atlanta airport, who encounter stereotypes that center on hair, but run much deeper. However, hair can be a political statement for white women as well. After all, there aren’t many white women who naturally have the ideal “Barbie” or “Celebrity” hair either! When a woman’s natural hair is seen as unprofessional or unruly, in need of taming, we all can stand with the cause of accepting natural, comfortable, inner, beauty. Just as she is in her music, message, and life, Erykah Badu serves as a hair inspiration!