The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Homegrown Gifts: George Washington’s Locks

Our exhibition Father of His Country Returns to Boston closes today as the holiday season wraps up. The exhibition commemorates the 225th anniversary of President George Washington’s month-long tour of New England in October 1789. One of the most interesting items on display as part of this exhibition is a lock of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton worked closely with Washington throughout the American Revolution and their political careers. Hamilton was born the second illegitimate child of James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien on 11 January 1755 or 1757 in Charlestown on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He worked as a clerk until he traveled to the British North American colonies for education. In New York, Hamilton became increasingly involved in the rumblings of Revolution during his studies at King’s College before responding to a call for recruits in 1776. Washington appointed Hamilton to the position of aide-de-camp at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on 1 March 1777. Washington mentored Hamilton as he did with all his aides-de-camp until a parting of ways in February 1781 when Hamilton resigned from Washington’s staff position over insult. However, their working relationship did not end there. Washington later appointed Hamilton as first Secretary of the Treasury in  September 1789 just before the President’s tour of New England commenced in October.  The circumstances surrounding the gift of Washington’s hair to Hamilton however remain undocumented.

The practice of gifting hair seems particularly strange to the 21st century observer. Nowadays people share photographs of themselves and their families in holiday cards or digitally through social media. Portraiture remained the primary way individuals shared images of themselves prior to the invention of the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s. But the gift of hair also held considerable value. Hair was often woven and incorporated into rings, bracelets, and other jewelry throughout the 18th century. Lovers, friends, and family often exchanged locks of hair as mementos.   Vestiges of hair traditions remain even today when parents save locks of their children’s hair.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has not just one but two separate locks of hair that George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton. Mrs. Charles Mason donated the first singular lock to the Society on 11 May 1876. The second lock of Washington’s hair is framed together with a lock of Hamilton’s own hair. The son of Alexander Hamilton, James A. Hamilton of Nevis, gave these locks to Eliza Andrew, wife of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, on 27 October 1865. The Society later received the locks from Andrew’s children, Edith and Henry Hersey Andrew in December 1920.

The text of the frame states:

“The above is the hair of my Father
Alexander Hamilton, presented
by me to Mrs. Andrew
Octo. 27 1865
James A. Hamilton”

“The above is the Hair of “The Father
of his Country” Geo. Washington pre=
sent to his friend Mrs Andrew by
James A. Hamilton
Oct 27 1865”

Marble bust of Alexander Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi, 1794

Their working relationship tempered by respect endured any snarls. Washington’s death on 11 December 1799 came as a great loss not only to the country he fathered but also to his former mentee. In a letter to Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear on 2 January 1800, Hamilton wrote, “Perhaps no man in this community has equal cause with myself to deplore the loss. I have been much indebted to the kindness of the General, and he was an Aegis very essential to me.”

permalink | Published: Friday, 9 January, 2015, 1:00 AM


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