Though it may be considered macabre by modern standards, taking the hair of the dead as a memento mori was common throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Sealed between two pieces of glass, the locket here contains the intertwined hair of America’s first constitutional president, George Washington, and his wife, Martha.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington never wore a wig, but was renowned for using his natural hair to command people’s respect and attention. While his hairstyle may look formal now, back in the 1700s, the pigtail-poof look he’s depicted as wearing was seen as a distinctly military cut—similar to today’s Marine buzz-cut. Washington wore this hairstyle specifically to project ineffable manliness. To him, wigs were better left to socialites like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. Called a queue, Washington’s ponytail pulled his forehead back, a symbol of force and power in those days.
Despite his macho appeal, Washington was still attentive to his looks. Military uniforms with aligned buttons and chalked, greased, hair completed his countenance of authority that appears in every depiction—whether it’s crossing the Delaware or adorning the quarter.
More Than Just Hair
While Washington’s hair is one fascinating part of the brooch, the artifact also represents the love between America’s first president and first, first lady.
Washington married Martha in the winter of 1759. She brought two children from her first marriage, whom Washington helped raise despite never having children of his own. According to Marquis de Lafayette, Martha was madly in love with Washington, sometimes traveling thousands of miles to see him in the most bitter and inhospitable conditions of the war.
Despite containing both George and Martha Washington’s hair, this brooch did not belong to them. It was entrusted to Washington’s secretary—and very close friend—Tobias Lear.
Friend and Confidant
Despite his close connection with Washington late in life, Lear didn’t participate in the Revolutionary War. Instead, he met the Washingtons through tutoring their children, quickly integrating himself into the Washingtons’ complex estate. Rising from being Washington’s clerk to his right-hand man, the two grew close, as Lear was involved in the president’s daily life and shared most meals with him.
During Washington’s second term, Lear convinced the president to go into business with him. Failing, this snowballed into a string of tragedies for Lear. For example, he lost his wife in a yellow fever epidemic, remarried and lost his second wife three years later to tuberculosis.
In the midst of these tragedies, Lear continued to perform unpaid errands for Washington. Under the pressure of his own collapsing finances, he pocketed a rent payment he was sent to collect. Washington was furious when he found out, but soon forgave him and offered up a position in the army. Despite never seeing active duty, Lear seemed to feel closer to Washington with the rank of colonel. He served as Washington’s chief aide until the president retired.
When Washington fell ill in 1799, Lear was present at Mount Vernon. Washington’s last words to his old friend were instructions that he be simply buried. Despite a presidential tomb constructed underneath the capitol building, Lear made sure to oversee all of the funeral arrangements himself, ensuring Washington was laid to rest at Mount Vernon.
About ten o’clk, Saturday December 14, 1799, Washington made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said,—”I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than two days after I am dead.” I bowed assent. He then looked at me again and said, “Do you understand me?” I replied “Yes.” “‘Tis well” said he. —From Lear’s diary
After the president’s death, Lear was given a brooch containing Washington and Martha’s hair. The hair sits behind beveled glass, is flanked with rubies, and is inscribed with “gage de mon amitie,” meaning “token of my friendship,” in French.