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.
Baldness can be sexy, but let’s be frank, only in certain cases. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Kingsley, or fashion model Tyson Beckford are positive examples. Perceptions may vary, of course, but for the most part a bald head makes a man less attractive, especially if he’s overweight or stocky. And men know it. They experience baldness as a loss of more than just their hair and are aware of it with every look in the mirror.
Before coming to Istanbul I never really thought about the fact that somebody could want to invest time and a couple of thousand euros in new hair. I knew that the “combover” — to cover otherwise obvious baldness — was no longer the latest in hair fashion and a toupee was completely out of the question, but hair transplants never really crossed my mind. Hair loss is not a marginal phenomenon: Two… More…
I’m part of the grow-your-own movement. Hair, that is. You’ll find no extensions in my waist-length mane, not that you’d think about it if you saw me on the street. Women my age can’t wear their hair down loose without being thought eccentric, perhaps because long, flowing hair is associated with sensuality. Unfettered sensuality in an older woman? Indecorous at best. So I wear my hair piled, twisted, and clipped-up to seem respectable.
That’s a choice. I could braid my hair and circle my head in the style of my mother and grandmother. Or, for that matter, I could be Princess Leia Organa for a day.
Hairstyle is as much costume as grooming.
The first time I wore my hair in a single braid over one shoulder, I did so on a lark. I thought I was being… More…
They were there in the caves of the Neolithic Stone Age. They were there in the temples of ancient Egypt and Rome. They were there at the coronation of King Henry IV. They were there on Napoleon’s battlefields. And they were there, in my very own house, just last month.
Lowly, unlovely lice, that is. Despite their unwavering lineage, I was shocked to find them crawling on my own children. I knew that lice still existed, of course, but I had always assumed that they belonged in someone else’s house. So despite receiving a letter from school alerting parents of an infestation, it took three days of watching my son furiously scratching his neck before I realized that he might not have mosquito bites.
The moment I checked, there they were: little wingless, bloodsucking insects skittering over his… More…
I knew something was in the air when the local hair salon started calling itself a day spa. Now all the blue-haired old ladies in town are going to be able to get a Brazilian wax.
When I was growing up, my mother used to go twice a month to the beauty parlor. That was what it was called then — not the hair stylist or even the hair salon, all latter-day terms. She would have her hair cut, colored, or coiffed, and sometimes she would get a manicure. But hair and nails were the extent of it. The body that lay in between was off limits. Caring for that — whatever it might entail — happened in the privacy of the home.
Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, that once-private expanse of the body opened itself to… More…