Rare lock of George Washington’s hair to be on public display for first time

Publication Date

The rare lock of George Washington’s hair found hidden in a long-forgotten book in Schaffer Library will be displayed publicly for the first time over Homecoming and Family weekend after being professionally conserved.

While surveying some of the College’s oldest books and records late last year, 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, is believed to have belonged to Philip J. Schuyler, son of Gen. Philip Schuyler, one of the College’s founders. The eldest Schuyler was also a close friend of Washington, served under him during the Revolutionary War and later became a U.S. senator from Albany.

Washington's hair

The almanac contained a series of handwritten notes from Schuyler. Further examination 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.

The hair and other materials were sent to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in North Andover, Mass., to be professionally conserved, said India Spartz, head of Special Collections and Archives. Conservators surface-cleaned the letter and envelope to remove superficial dirt. Also, tears were mended on both of these items and a loose metal clasp was re-attached to the Gaines Universal Register binding.

The lock of Washington’s hair and envelope were mounted and secured inside a custom frame. An archival cloth-covered box was constructed to house the framed items. The Gaines Universal Register sits in a separate compartment within the box. Spartz said the box is flexible so that the hair-related items may be easily exhibited and stored with minimal handling.

The hair will be displayed Friday, Oct. 12, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 13, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the library’s Beuth Atrium. Future exhibits are planned, Spartz said.

When not on display, the hair and related items will be kept in a secure, climate-controlled area in Special Collections.

“This is a very significant treasure for Union and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to share it with the public,” Spartz said. “I hope it inspires visitors to appreciate our connection to history.”

News of the historic discovery resonated from Boston to Bombay, with more than 2,500 print and broadcast media outlets reporting on the find, including the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Fox News and NPR. The New York Times ran a story on its front page on President’s Day with the headline: “Finding a Lock of George Washington’s Hair, and a Link to American History.”

The news went viral on social media, with the Smithsonian and other prominent institutions celebrating the school’s discovery with clever tweets and posts. At one point, the news was trending on Facebook, the first time the College achieved that milestone.