Think carefully, and remember this story — of George Washington’s old hair and the lucky people who found it.
Not unlike with a certain later president, people assume Washington wore a wig, but he didn’t.
“That hair was his,” National Geographic once wrote. “All of it — the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck.”
It wasn’t fake hair, it was just sort of weird hair, and then only by our modern standards. Washington fluffed his reddish hair, as was the style in his day. He may have greased it. Once greased, he powdered it stark white — or at least he did so until it turned naturally gray in his old age.
And then he died in 1799. And that’s the end of the story of President George Washington’s life, but not of his hair.
Not all of Washington’s hair went into a tomb with him. That’s because, like many in his day, he had a habit of giving it away. One of his locks is kept at Mount Vernon, for example, which his wife, Martha, is said to have cut from his head at the end of his presidency and given to friends, who put it in a locket.
Again, this was not considered weird in the 18th century. People gave hair as pre-engagement gifts, or as memorials, or just to say, “You’re special. Here is hair.”
“It could just be a way to remember me because people didn’t know if they’d see each other again in those days; life was more fleeting,” said India Spartz, head of archives at Union College, which is about to intersect with our old hair story in a big way.
Union College was founded in Schenectady, N.Y. — outside Albany — in 1795, just a few years before Washington died. In December, an archivist was doing some inventory work and noticed an old leather-bound book that for some reason had never been cataloged.
It is called “Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793.” Clunky title, maybe. A note on the cover says it belonged to a college founder’s son: one Philip Schuyler, whose grandson was the son of Washington’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and his wife, Eliza — both good friends of the president.
You can diagram all that if genealogy is fun for you. Or just forget it. The important part is that this old leather almanac that somehow ended up on a backroom shelf at Union College once belonged to a family that was friendly with the Washingtons.
Friends, remember. Friends and hair.
The catalogue librarian, John Myers, unclasped the book’s old cover and sat down to see what was inside. The college has thousands of old books in its archives, so this was fairly routine business.
The book, as you might expect from an almanac, is not exactly thrilling reading. It is full of population estimates and monetary calculations. Schuyler had written notes in the margins about preserving beef, and who was in Congress and who had left Congress, and his business affairs.
Except, Myers didn’t get to read any of that before he flipped the front cover open and saw a tiny envelope sitting loose inside, upon which was written “Washington’s hair.”
“At which part, I paused,” Myers told The Washington Post. “No,” he thought. “Not the Washington Washington’s hair.”
He peeked inside the envelope.
There was hair in it.
“It’s kind of this very curious yellow-gray hair,” Myers said. There were only a few strands, tied neatly in a loop with a piece of thread. “I’m like, I’m no expert, but that really feels like the real deal.”
With hair and book in hand, Myers had to restrain himself from literally running through the library to Spartz, the archives director.
“You’ll never believe what I found,” he told her.
For the next several weeks, the college staff reached out to every George Washington hair expert it could find. It turns out there is more than one.
John Reznikoff — a professional hair collector who has procured samples from Abraham Lincoln and Neil Armstrong, among others — examined photos of Union College’s discovery and is as satisfied as he could be without a DNA test (which would destroy the hair) that it is exactly what it looks like.
“It’s not hugely valuable, maybe two- to three-thousand dollars for the strands you have, but it’s undoubtedly George Washington’s,” Reznikoff said, as quoted in the college’s news release.
As for the hair’s provenance, the college said experts at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, which already had a few strands of Washington’s hair under glass, have a theory:
The hair likely passed from Washington’s head to his friends, the Hamiltons, and then to the Schuylers, on Eliza Hamilton’s side of the family — and then somehow into an almanac that ended up on a bookshelf in a locked room in the library of a college the Schuylers helped found.
Suffice to say, this is not motel-drain hair. Union College says it is the guardian of one of 16 locks of Washington’s hair known to exist and is now working to preserve the strands and put them on display.
It may not be much — no more than a comb-full of the most superficial part of a man who has long since left this earth. But if it really is Washington’s hair, it’s about all we have left of him. Wouldn’t he have wanted us to have it?
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the lock of George Washington’s hair kept at Mount Vernon is on public display. It is not, at the moment.