Americans have been curious about Donald Trump’s hair for a long time, and that curiosity has only increased since his election. But the fact is that Americans have had a thing for commander-in-chief coifs ever since George Washington came on the scene, and the recent discovery of yet another lock of the first president’s hair still makes national headlines.
In the latest find at Union College library in Schenectady, New York, the six-inch strands were tucked inside an envelope left inside a 1793 almanac. The envelope identified the hair as Washington’s (unlike many of his contemporaries, Washington didn’t wear a wig; he grew his hair out and styled it), and also described how the lock had been passed down through generations—from Alexander Hamilton’s wife to their son James; and from James to his granddaughters.
This might sound a bit creepy to modern readers. Yet in the 18th and 19th centuries, hair was a common thing to exchange between family and friends, as well as a way to remember the dead. As a military hero and the first U.S. president, Washington’s hair was in high demand from his admirers—both during life and after death.
“Second only to his autographs, the most widely distributed relics of the first president are pieces of his hair,” writes historian Robert Peck in Antiques magazine. “These are found in such numbers that one wonders how our famously dentured patriarch was able to generate enough keratin to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand.”
Many of these samples still survive, and about four dozen of them are stored at Washington’s Mount Vernon home and museum in Virginia, says Susan Schoelwer, the site’s senior curator. Some of these samples are just loose pieces of hair folded in paper. Others are framed or woven and set into brooches or rings. After all, hair jewelry was popular at the time.
Although Washington’s hair was probably the most widely distributed, presidential hair continued to be a sentimental souvenir throughout the 19th century. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, the operating surgeons saved pieces of his hair, including some surrounding the bullet wound, as a way to remember him.
In fact, Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia currently houses hair samples from the first twelve presidents, plus a clipping from one living president. All of the dead presidents’ clippings come from Peter Arrell Browne, a lawyer who gathered these and other hair samples in the 1800s to study the relationships between different races (this was a 19th-century preoccupation among educated white men).
How did Browne acquire the hair of the most powerful men in the country? He simply asked for it. Browne wrote directly to sitting presidents, retired presidents, and the families of dead presidents, says Peck, who is also a senior fellow at the academy.
This wasn’t quite as unusual a request as it seems today. For starters, Browne said he needed it for “scientific purposes.” But Browne’s request must also be understood in the context of the period. Back then, giving someone your hair was no big deal. And if you were a president, people often wanted yours as a souvenir.
“We have a letter from [Andrew] Jackson’s son saying [something like], ‘My father would be happy to send you his hair, but he just went to the barber, and it is rather short now, so if you can just wait for a fortnight we’ll send it to you,’” Peck says.
It’s hard to imagine something like that happening today, and safe to assume that Americans won’t revive the trend of presidential hair souvenirs any time soon. Still, Peck is interested in expanding the Academy of Natural Sciences’ collection with samples of living presidents’ hair—including Trump’s.
“I spoke to George W. Bush about it at one point,” Peck says. “But he didn’t seem particularly interested.”
Back in 2016, Peck also invited Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama to donate their hair to the academy’s collection when they traveled to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. As the first black president, who famously let a young boy touch his hair so he could feel its similarity to his own, a sample of Obama’s hair would carry a special significance.
Peck hasn’t heard from Obama yet, but after the convention, Carter surprised Peck by sending him a small bag of his hair clippings. He also included a letter explaining why the enclosed strands were so tiny.
“Since returning home from the White House, I have kept it cut quite short, so these pieces are mostly less than one-half inches long,” Carter wrote. “I did not anticipate growing longer locks for display in a museum!”
An earlier version of this story ran on June 7, 2016, under the title “Beyond Trump—America’s Obsession With Presidential Hair.”