“We’ve got better vision, better ideas … and we’ve got better hair.”
So said former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 while campaigning with running mate John Edwards. Three years later, Edwards’s hair made news again when it came out that the presidential hopeful had paid between $300 and $1,250 for some of his haircuts. Now, Donald Trump’s hair is a popular meme and the source of bizarre rumors.
The national conversation about candidates’ coiffure goes back even further. Americans have been interested in political hair ever since George Washington came on the scene in 1789. Recently, collectors paid $6,000 for a sample of Thomas Jefferson’s mane and $25,000 for a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s.
This July, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia will display hair from Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson just as politicians flood the city for the Democratic National Convention.
Those five presidents represent only part of the collection—the academy actually has hair from the first 12 presidents in its archives, all of it gathered in the 1800s by lawyer Peter Arrell Browne, who wanted to use it to study the relationships between different races (a 19th-century preoccupation among educated white men).
How did Browne acquire the hair of the most powerful men in the country? He asked for it. Browne wrote directly to sitting presidents, retired presidents, and the families of dead presidents, says Robert Peck, a historian and senior fellow at the academy.
“We have a letter from Jackson’s son saying [something like], ‘My father would be happy to send you his hair, but he just went to the barber, and it is rather short now, so if you can just wait for a fortnight we’ll send it to you,’” he says.
This wasn’t quite as unusual a request as it seems today. For starters, Browne said he needed it for “scientific purposes.” But Browne’s request must also be understood in the context of the period—in the 18th and 19th centuries, giving someone your hair was no big deal. And if you were a president, people often wanted yours as a souvenir.
Georgy With the Good Hair
Unlike many of his contemporaries, George Washington didn’t wear a wig. Instead, he grew his hair out and fashioned it in a military style (which is what you see on the U.S. dollar bill).
When he was elected president in 1789, hair was a common thing to exchange between family and friends, as well as a way to remember the dead. As a military hero and the first U.S. president, Washington’s hair was in high demand from his admirers—both during life and after death.
“Second only to his autographs, the most widely distributed relics of the first president are pieces of his hair,” writes Peck in Antiques magazine. “These are found in such numbers that one wonders how our famously dentured patriarch was able to generate enough keratin to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand.”
Many of these samples still survive, and about four dozen of them are stored at Washington’s Mount Vernon home and museum in Virginia, says Susan Schoelwer, the site’s senior curator. Some of these samples are just loose pieces of hair folded in paper. Others are framed or woven and set into brooches or rings. After all, hair jewelry was popular at the time.
Although Washington’s hair was probably the most widely distributed, presidential hair continued to be a sentimental souvenir throughout the 19th century. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, the operating surgeons saved pieces of his hair, including some surrounding the bullet wound, as a way to remember him.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The “people’s president,” Andrew Jackson, made headlines this year when the Treasury Department announced that he would move to the back of the $20 bill and that abolitionist, former slave, and Union Army spy Harriet Tubman would take his place on the front. But Jackson also garnered attention for another reason: Trump.
“Consciously or not, Mr. Trump’s campaign echoes the style of Andrew Jackson,” writes Steve Inskeep, author of Jacksonland. Both men share an aggressive, white populist appeal; and like Trump, Jackson’s rivals thought he was “crude,” or “even a danger to the republic.” As Full Frontal host Samantha Bee puts it, Jackson was “kind of like a Trump with better hair.”
And what hair it was.
“If you look at Jackson’s hair on the $20 bill … you see what a huge lock of hair he had,” Peck says. “I shouldn’t call it Donald Trump-ish, but it was pretty thick and heavy, and so he seems to have been clipped more than most.”
Jackson’s former Tennessee home and museum, the Hermitage, has about eight or nine hair samples, says vice president of museum services Marsha Mullin.
“When Jackson was alive, getting cuttings of his hair was a big thing,” she says. “It’s referenced frequently in letters.”
His hair was so desirable that when the former president visited the Nashville Female Academy in 1842, the students “procured so many of his snow-white locks as to give his head the appearance of having just passed from the hands of the barber,” reported the Washington Globe.
It’s hard to imagine something like that happening today, and presidential hair souvenirs probably won’t come back into vogue anytime soon. In the meantime, Peck has invited former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as President Barack Obama, to donate their hair to the academy’s collection when they travel to Philadelphia for the convention this summer.
“I spoke to George W. Bush about it at one point,” Peck says, “but he didn’t seem particularly interested.”
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