Out of Thin Hair

An interview with writer and historian, Robert McCracken Peck


in Conversations

In early November, I received an event notification in my email: “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Speaker Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, was going to provide insight into the hair collection of Peter A. Browne, the subject of his book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. I couldn’t click fast enough to RSVP.A lawyer, Browne became interested in wool and fur, tracking the differences between animals and species across various geographic locales. The next step was human hair. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Browne actively collected human hair samples, including 13 of the first US presidents, famous authors like James Fenimore Cooper, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Browne devoted his life to this project. Before DNA, Browne knew hair was a significant indicator of our identity and that through hair, we could know more about ourselves, as individuals, in addition to the human species. His immense collection, however, would have been tossed in the 1970s had it not been for Peck who stumbled upon the scrapbooks in the hallway of the Academy bound for the trash.

Peck’s book, Specimens of Hair, accounts for the collection through Rosamond Purcell’s stunning photographs and Peck’s rich text. Full of history and analysis, the book is more than just a glance into what many might consider a frivolous oddity, something to ogle and judge. Peck makes the irrefutable case of Browne’s collection being emblematic of 19th-century science, curiosity, and the adventurous spirit of scientific exploration. A week after his talk, Peck was gracious enough to host me in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences where we discussed Browne’s mission, science literacy and advocacy, and the implications of collecting hair samples. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Melinda Lewis: My first question is about the act of collecting because I’m fascinated by the serendipity of you finding this collection and the idea of one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

This collection wasn’t anything anybody else was interested in and could have been lost forever, but you saw something there and saved it from obscurity. How did you know that this was a collection worth saving?

Robert McCracken Peck: As a historian, as soon as I opened those albums the names of the donors whose hair was in them resonated with me. I saw the collection as telling a story in itself, and not just one that was important to the Academy and to science, but important to the country. I was stunned that anyone would think of throwing it out.

ML: Seems when you have presidential hair, that that should be keep-able.

RMP: Well really all of it was, and is, important, but no one then appreciated what use it could be put to, and so that part was sheer serendipity. But I would argue that even without DNA, even if that had never been discovered, or this hair didn’t contain any of it, it would still be important to keep, just because of the people who were involved, and the correspondence, and what it tells us about what people were thinking about science at the time.

What Browne was trying to do, even though he went about it the wrong way, was important. He was trying to figure out how the world worked in an original way that no one had thought about before.

This collection reflects his unique approach to it. Other people, his friends and fellow members here at the Academy, were doing the same things with birds, mammals, fish, insects, plants, and fossils. Browne started with sheep, as you know, and then moved to other animals. Eventually, he said, “Let’s apply this to people. Surely we can learn something about people from their hair.”

He was also among the first to use a microscope to look at hair of all kinds, up close and personal. He developed a little device with which he could cut the hair across, get a profile of it, and then analyze that. And that’s what enabled him to come up with his three types of human hair: round, oval, and elliptical.

A coveted lock from George Washington.


ML: And so by the wrong way, it’s not necessarily methodology, but the spirit behind it?

RMP: The methodology was perfectly valid and fine. And even the spirit was perfectly valid, he just wanted to know more. The conclusions, in a few cases, were wrong. But that was the time when people also believed in phrenology, that bumps on your head would tell you whether they were a bad person, or a smart person, or a funny person. He was groping, as all of his peers were, in every discipline, with what can we discover through objective observation and analysis and how much of it is valid. What he did discover about humans is how we’re related to each other, and that was totally valid. Where he missed the boat was in assuming that because there were differences, it meant that people could be classified as different species.

Now, the reason he would think that is because that’s exactly what others were doing with, say, rabbits and mice and squirrels. If there were some differences of appearance, scientists classified them as different species.

We don’t do that with humans. We are all descended from a common source.

ML: As a historian and a curator, how do you negotiate that territory of understanding the problematic nature of the outcome, but also acknowledging all of the good aspects of it?

RMP: I try to put it in a historical context, and see what other people were thinking at the time. Was it state-of-the-art knowledge? Was there some kind of evil agenda that the investigator was trying to drive? In Browne’s case, I don’t think there was any evil agenda. His work did have some negative consequences, however. Because of the racial tensions that were building up in the decade leading up to the Civil War, people seized on Browne’s discoveries and classification of different kinds of hair to say, “Ah, you see, this proves that people from Africa are a different group from those coming from Europe, an inferior group, therefore, we have every right to control them.”

Browne was not interested in the politics of it, he was interested in where people came from geographically.

ML: It seems like after Darwinism becomes an entity, and then social Darwinism, there becomes a perversion of a lot of this material.

It doesn’t have those intentions, but it’s like, “Oh, well, clearly I’m right to assume this because look at this.”

RMP: Exactly. Darwin’s ideas provide a sort of parallel. “Survival of the fittest” seemed to some people to give license to being brutal and unfair to other people because if you survive and are successful, that means you were meant to.

Darwin, I don’t think, ever intended that as a social pattern, but it’s easy for people to grab those things if they’re looking for them and then use them for their own ends.

I do regret that Darwin and Browne never got to communicate with one another. Origin of Species was published at the end of 1859, just a month or two before Browne died. I think had they had a chance to correspond, they would have had some very interesting conversations.

Darwin did not come out with his Descent of Man for another 30 years after that, so he would have been picking up on things from Browne, no doubt. More than Browne maybe would have found from him. But I think the two of them would have been fascinated by each other, because they both had such curious and open minds about anything being possible. They thought that if you just asked enough questions, you’re bound to sooner or later come up with interesting answers.

ML: The thing that really resonated with me about Browne’s work was this idea of citizen science. Really enlisting others to participate in the research, as opposed to him kind of dictating all the terms, but asking people who are traveling, “Hey, while you’re in Italy, can you score me some hair?”

He seems to be utilizing his resources and including others to become a part of this collection. How did he reach out or pose requests to possible candidates?

RMP: He cast the net as widely as he could, and anybody was encouraged to contribute to his collection, participate in it, and correspond with him. He was open to all kinds of ideas. Anything they would suggest, he said always, “Give me as much information as you can.” And then he would sometimes follow up with letters back, asking them more questions. He was very much a proponent of the “citizen science” concept. I hadn’t thought of that parallel, but that’s a brilliant comparison.

We’re returning to that now, trying to get more people to be involved. He, fortunately, lived at a time when the public was curious about science and respectful of it. And it wasn’t being denigrated by politicians who say science is not to be believed and is the enemy of the people.

He and most of his peers felt just the opposite, and they were in awe of an institution like the Academy, which was advancing knowledge through science.

ML: Browne is a lawyer and pursuing this research in his spare time, correct? 

RMP: That’s the amazing thing. He had this full legal career. He was absolutely engaged in that, respected in it, and there were lots of court cases that he was involved with that had nothing to do with hair, or wool, or anything scientific. This was really a hobby for him, but in those days people had more time, and he devoted all of it to this.

And he had fun, I think, sending out letters, and must have felt like a kid in a candy shop every day when the letters began arriving back from all over the world. He never knew where his requests were going to end up or what they were going to produce, but amazing stuff came to him.

ML: Was he struggling to have people understand? Or because hair was contextualized so differently in the 19th century, did people just acquiesce more easily?

RMP: I think it was much easier. Collecting hair was quite common then. For social reasons, people would have examples of their own family’s hair. There is a letter that I found when I was working on this— a form letter that Browne had printed to send out to would-be donors.

I found it not in our archives here in Philadelphia, but in Alabama, at the state’s historical society in Montgomery. I was looking for something else but found it in the papers of a person who had been sent the letter. It is the only example I know of that has survived.

Left: Selections from African donors and Right: A lock from James Fenimore Cooper.

ML: People say collecting is really a cover for hoarding. It’s become a pejorative. As a curator, do you have a line?

RMP: In those days collecting had a more acceptable place in society. When Peter Browne wrote people — not just with his printed form letters but with personal letters — he would say, “I’m forming a national collection.” That gave it some gravitas and people thought, “Well, I’m not just throwing away my father’s or grandfather’s hair, I’m giving it to someone who’s going to save it for the nation, along with whatever knowledge it will produce.”

ML: And by contributing to a national collection, you’re contributing to a larger idea, right?

RMP: Exactly — something bigger than yourself.

ML: Does Browne articulate an end goal, or is it just collecting forever?

RMP: He was collecting forever. Had he only lived another year, I am fairly sure Abraham Lincoln’s hair would have been included in his collection.

He successfully obtained 13 of the first 14 presidents; Lincoln would have been the next one, but sadly Browne didn’t live quite long enough to get Lincoln’s. For him, the project was open-ended, and unfortunately, he didn’t have an heir, a pupil, or a disciple who could have kept the collection going. It would have been amazing if someone had continued for the second half of the 19th century. Think of the Civil War and the post-Civil War period, and all those people who would have been included.

 ML: Did anybody take up his project after he died?

RMP: No, it just stopped. I think his friends and colleagues felt he’d accomplished everything he could, and they weren’t willing or able to step in and carry it on. It was a bigger project than they wanted to assume. Maybe because he’d made it so big, it was daunting to them to think of taking it over.

ML: By this time, I guess near his death, was the scope of the project massive? Was he well known at this point for collecting and gathering?

RMP: He was. I wouldn’t say he was well known to the average citizen in the street, but certainly, in all the scientific world, he was. If anyone had a question about hair, he was the first person they would have thought to write to or ask. And not just about human hair, but about sheep wool and animal hair as well.

He did a lot of public speaking, wrote a lot of articles, and published his own pamphlets and books on the subjects of wool and hair.

I think if a scientific discipline of wool, fur, and hair study had already been established, Mr. Browne might have felt himself an outsider. Because he was busy with his law practice he probably would have deferred to the professionals. But when he began exploring this subject, he realized that there weren’t any professionals. Nobody had published on it and, therefore, it was an open subject area that needed his attention. I think that must have made him feel very good about what he was doing.

Sheep’s wool.

ML: I bet. It seems to be one of those research areas where it just seems so obvious to explore.

RMP: And it’s interesting that in his time, the social aspects of it were so widely known and accepted. That’s why everyone had hair and collected it, or gave it to each other. Girls kept scrapbooks of it and people wore it in jewelry.

ML: I did not know that there were teenage girls running around with scrapbooks of hair.

RMP: It’s quite amazing, and I’ve seen hundreds of them. They’re beautifully done. They often have poems associated with the hair samples that are quite sentimental.

In the 19th century, all of this, the social side of it, would have been totally acceptable, and front and center in daily life. It was the science of it, then, that was the novelty. And now things have reversed, in that there are plenty of people who study hair scientifically. There are all kinds of diseases of hair that are the subjects of study, but people don’t collect it for personal reasons anymore.

ML: Through hair, we’ve talked about the history of science and the goals of science. How do you begin to prioritize this information?

RMP:  That’s what fascinated me, actually, when I was first approached by a publisher to do a book on Mr. Browne’s “pile” collection. At first, I thought, “Oh, this is an odd subject, who would be interested in this?” And then the more I researched it, the more I thought about it, the more fascinating I found it to be because it really does touch on every aspect of our lives, and on the history of science.

What I tried to do in the book is to put Browne into a larger context, to tell about his life and what he was trying to achieve. And also what others have been able to learn from hair. Not using his collection, per se, because very few people in the 20th century knew it existed. It sat quietly at the Academy, was almost thrown out, and then was saved. It then sat again, unnoticed, for another 30 years.

But, that’s not to say that the hair contained in other collections has not been used for all kinds of purposes, which we’ve discussed here, as I think ours will be, going forward. I expect we are going to get a lot of requests from people saying, “Oh, I’m studying such and such a tribe in the South Pacific, and you have the only examples of hair from these people. Can we do a DNA test using the Browne hair samples?”

ML: Have you already been receiving requests of this nature?

RMP: Not yet. But I’m expecting to in the new year, now that the book is out and Browne’s collection is becoming better known.

ML: For readers, what is the thing that you would like them to come away with about this collection, and Browne, in general?

RMP: The value of curiosity. At any time, at any age, and on almost any subject, there are always questions to be asked. And taking the time and keeping your mind open to the answers is the important part. Of course, Browne did live in a different age, when time was spent quite differently. I’m kind of envious of that. There are other parts of that age that I’m glad I don’t have to live through.

We tend to jump around so much now. We’ve got so much on our plates and move from one thing to another. Browne had a steady, steadfast, methodical commitment to a question or a series of questions. The questions kept changing over time, but they all dealt with the same general themes.

Many people look at my book and say, “Oh, he was such an eccentric, what a weirdo.” The flipside is that he was just a very curious, thoughtful person who spent time trying to answer questions. And we’re still trying to answer many of the same questions that he was asking — and many others he hadn’t thought to ask. Thanks to his foresight in assembling his collection, we are able to continue the process of asking as we go forward.

ML:  It makes me think more about this book potentially enabling us to be more empathetic to those who build collections.

There’s a curiosity there that should be fostered and explored, and a joy. Just experience that joy.

RMP: I love the word joy because clearly, Peter Browne enjoyed doing what he did.

I think it must have been very validating to him to have so many people who were hugely respected in their day writing him letters saying “Thank you for asking me for my hair. What you are doing is important and I’m happy to help.”

When I was doing my research on this, I was trying to put the whole hair collecting thing in context. As part of that, I did quite a bit of research on George Washington, because his is the most widely collected and exhibited U.S. presidential hair. You can go to historical societies up and down the East Coast, and everybody claims to have a bit of George Washington’s hair. I actually wrote an article for Antiques Magazine about Washington’s hair.

Amazingly, I found a letter that someone who didn’t even know him sent to him when he was at Valley Forge. In it, they asked him for some of his hair. There he was trying to run the American Revolution, his army on the verge of mutiny, starving, freezing, and the whole country about to fall apart. But he took the time, as Commander in Chief, to stop and send a very pleasant letter back saying, “Yes, here’s some of my hair, you are welcome to have it. Thanks for asking.”

That alone told me that hair had a real resonance and depth for people in the 18th and 19th centuries that we just don’t remember or fully appreciate today. Clearly, Browne was able to take that and give it a scientific dimension. But it was already there, he wasn’t just pulling it out of thin air.

ML: Finding that gap and saying, “Let’s explore this further.”

RMP: Yes, Browne was saying, “Let’s study it. We all love hair; we all collect it, in a way, but let’s put it to some useful purpose.” •

All photos courtesy of Blast Books.


Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.