PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In conjunction with the Democratic National Convention coming to Philadelphia, The Academy of Natural Sciences has mounted a special exhibit that relates just to presidents of the United States.
It’s called “Presidential Archives: Letters, Hair and Fossils.” It showcases some of the museum’s connections to presidents — of all political parties — in its 204-year history. Thomas Jefferson’s mastodon fossils, presidential letters, and other items that span science and politics are on display. But perhaps the most fascinating feature of the exhibit is the presidential hair collection, something the public has seen only one other time in 2008.
“We’ve kept it in storage in the Academy archive for its own protection in the years since,” said Bob Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts. “We brought it out just for this occasion, the presidential theme of the exhibit to link with the Democratic National Convention.”
Peck says the collection began in the 1830’s and ’40s by a Philadelphia lawyer named Peter Brown, who was very interested in natural history.
“He started his interest with a particular focus on sheep wool. There were hundreds and hundreds of different species of sheep, and the wool worked best for certain things,” he said. “One kind of wool might be good for blankets, another kind might be good for felt hats for insulation, and so on. So Brown assembled a huge collection of sheep wool and he hoped to use this to instruct American farmers and sheep growers which were the best to have and what would make our country the most productive.”
It was that work on sheep wool and animal fur, Peck says, that led to Brown’s interest in human hair.
“He thought that by collecting human hair from different parts of the world he might be able to shed some light on how we were all related to each other,” Peck explained.
So Brown began collecting hair from people of all ages and backgrounds, including musicians, artists, politicians and signers of the Declaration of Independence. He eventually assembled a collection of hair from each of the first twelve U.S. presidents.
“It’s a remarkable collection because these were assembled not for sentimental reasons the way hair was generally being collected in those days, but for scientific purposes,” Peck said. “He would look at the hair under a microscope and analyze it and try to draw conclusions.”
While collecting hair may seem strange today, Peck says it was very common in the 19th century, reaching its peak during the American Civil War.
As a soldier would go to battle, he might take the hair of his wife or his children with him as a sort of memory to hold,” he said, “just as they would retain hair of his at home.”
Peck says people would keep hair clippings from loved ones in lockets, brooches, rings and pins. He says even collecting hair from early commanders-in-chief was nothing unusual.
“From presidential hair, it dates back really to [Thomas] Jefferson, [George] Washington, [John] Adams, the first three presidents, all of whom were giving away hair to friends,” he explained. “We have letters when George Washington was stationed at Valley Forge, fighting the [American] Revolution, people were writing him letters and saying would he send them clippings of his hair.”
There are clippings of Washington’s hair in museums across the county, but Peck points out that the Academy of Natural Sciences has one of a few examples collected for scientific purposes.
“Not very many of our presidents in the past have had a direct interest in science or involvement with science,” he said, “but those who have are well represented in this exhibition.”
Hoping to add to the collection, Peck says the museum has invited former presidents who will be in town for the DNC to come see the exhibit and to contribute their hair if they’d like. Peck says he’s also reached out to President Obama and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
“I’ve written a letter to Secretary Clinton and to her husband, and requested that each of them stop by to see the exhibition and to contribute their own hair to the collection,” he said. “I haven’t yet had a reply.”
And Peck admits Donald Trump’s hair would make an “interesting addition” should he be elected president.
The exhibit runs through July 29.
Listen to podcasts any time at hearphilly.com.
Follow HearPHILLY on Twitter.