When Ellen Douglas Brownlow asked the former Civil War general in 1870 for a lock of his hair as a keepsake, he would not have considered it a strange request. In fact, it was common in the Victorian era for friends to exchange a cutting of human hair. Civil War soldiers often left some of their long tresses with loved ones before departing for service. Hair was preferred over autographs, and prominent people were known to give clips of hair to admirers.
According to Brownlow’s account in 1903, Lee good-naturedly made the cut himself. The lock was then divided among several ladies, which explains why this one is more a collection of strands. It eventually ended up in the Southern Historical Collection’s Boyd Family Papers before its transfer to the North Carolina Collection Gallery earlier this month.
While many locks from historical figures are safely preserved in manuscript collections, others are part of a thriving souvenir market in celebrity hair. Prices for a few strands can reach five figures, as shown in 2011 when a fan paid over $40,000 for a lock of Justin Bieber’s hair. According to a New York Times article, a locket with a sample of Lee’s hair sold in 2012 for $12,500 at auction.