Washington’s hair kept here

Publication Date

While surveying some of the College’s oldest books and records, Daniel Michelson, a historical records project archivist, spotted on a shelf a compact, leather book, “Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793.”

The popular almanac, which includes population estimates for the American colonies and comparisons of various coins and monies, is believed to have belonged to Philip J. Schuyler, the son of Gen. Philip Schuyler, one of the College’s founders.

The eldest Schuyler was also a close friend and supporter of Washington, served under him during the Revolutionary War, and later became a U.S. senator from Albany.

The almanac contains a series of handwritten notes from Schuyler, including how to “preserve beef for summer’s use.” It is inscribed “Philip Schuyler’s a present from his friend Mr. Philip Ten Eycke New York April 20, 1793.”

Further examination of the almanac by John Myers, catalogue and metadata librarian, uncovered a slender yellowed envelope tucked inside. It was inscribed: “Washington's hair, L.S.S. & (scratched out) GBS from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.” The envelope contained several strands of gray or whitening hair, neatly tied together by a single thread.

Also inside was an 1804 letter to the younger Schuyler.

A grandson of General Schuyler, James Alexander Hamilton was the third son of Alexander and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton served as a lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War under Washington and later joined his cabinet as the first secretary of the Treasury when Washington was elected the nation’s first president.

According to Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Hamilton (which inspired the blockbuster musical), George and Martha Washington were close to the much younger Alexander and Eliza. Washington died in 1799.

“In an era when people frequently exchanged hair as a keepsake, it's quite probable that Martha had given Eliza some of George's hair, which in turn was given to their son, James, who later distributed it, strand by strand, as a precious memento to close friends and family members,” said Susan Holloway Scott, an independent scholar and author of the recent historical novel “I Eliza Hamilton.”

Officials with the Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site in Albany, believe that James Hamilton gave the lock of Washington’s hair to his granddaughters, Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, whose initials are on the envelope discovered at Union. The mansion displays another few strands of Washington’s hair in a locket kept under glass.

A lack of documentation on clear custody of the material found in Union’s archives or DNA testing makes it difficult to verify that the strands of hair are Washington’s. The handwriting believed to be James Hamilton’s on the envelope is similar to Hamilton’s handwriting that accompanies strands of Washington’s hair held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

John Reznikoff, a prominent manuscripts and documents dealer in Westport, Conn., examined photographs of Union’s material.

“Without DNA, you’re never positive, but I believe it’s 100 percent authentic,” said Reznikoff.

In 40 years of collecting, Reznikoff has acquired locks of hair from Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Napoleon and others. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Largest Collection of Hair from Historical Figures.”

“It’s not hugely valuable, maybe two to three thousand dollars for the strands you have, but it’s undoubtedly George Washington’s,” he said.

One mystery remains: How did Philip J. Schuyler’s almanac, with the hair inside, end up in the College’s archives? No records have been located to confirm its provenance.

His father, General Philip Schuyler, has a strong connection to Union. He is considered among the College’s founders, when, as a member of the New York State Board of Regents, he supported the placement of a college in Schenectady instead of Albany. His letter announcing the granting of a charter for Union is kept in Special Collections.

Schuyler’s portrait also hangs in Hale House dining hall. It was presented to the College by his great grandson, Robert Livingston Schuyler, at Union’s first Founders Day on Feb. 27, 1937.

In the meantime, Spartz is working to preserve the lock of Washington’s hair, the letter and the almanac. A public display is planned at some point.

Familiarity with Washington’s distinctive hairstyle is high, in part because Washington is featured on the dollar bill and the quarter. And contrary to popular lore, Washington did not wear a wig. His hair was originally reddish-brown and he powdered it regularly to achieve the fashionable white color. By the time of his presidency, however, the reddish-brown had faded to the gray-white color seen in Union’s strands.

“As an archivist, we come across interesting material all of the time,” she said. “But this is such a treasure for the campus.”

The discovery of Washington’s hair is not Union’s most significant association with the nation’s first president. In 1968, the College announced the discovery of a major cache of letters of Washington and other major figures of the Revolutionary War period. Included was a letter from Lt. Col. John Jameson that may have given Washington the first hint of Benedict Arnold’s treason.

The find was made by Codman Hislop, a research professor of American Civilization. The owner of the papers, John Hawkes of Vermont, had asked Hislop to select something from “family papers” for a Washington’s Birthday exhibit at a local grammar school.

In a 15-page exclusive for its Feb. 23, 1968, issue, Life magazine heralded the discovery as “one of the great finds of the present century,” and the announcement was picked up by news outlets worldwide.

The collection was kept by Union until 1978, when most of it was returned to its owner.

Strands of Washington's hair were discovered in an envelope tucked inside a leather book, “Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793.” Also inside was an 1804 letter to Philip J. Schuyler, the son of Gen. Philip Schuyler, one of the College’s founders.

An ongoing inventory of archival collections at Schaffer Library has uncovered a historic find: a rare lock of hair belonging to George Washington hidden inside a long-forgotten book.

“This is a very significant treasure,” said India Spartz, head of Special Collections and Archives. “It’s a tremendous testament to history and our connection to some of the most important historical figures.”

Washington's Hair