John Varden’s fantastic collection of Presidential hair
Museums weren’t always august institutions. Sometimes, they came from collectors who knew how to hustle. That’s exactly how a man named John Varden ended up curating the world’s best Presidential hair collection.
An entrepreneurial curator gets bought out
In 1829, Varden decided to turn an amazing art collection into a museum (hair wasn’t part of the picture yet). He took early American art and displayed it, and his success let him expand into the Washington Museum in 1836. By 1841, the government was competing with him through the newly opened National Institute, so he sold out and worked for them, bringing his art collection with him. He joined the staff and kept a gallery in the Patent Office. That’s where his most unusual collection began.
A hair collection grows
Safely employed by the Patent Office, Varden began a new artistic project: collecting locks of Presidential hair (and hair from other famous people).
Varden declared the collection was made on his personal time, not the government’s. Begun in 1850, it included hair from George Washington onward. Each lock was put in a frame and accompanied by a short description of the hair’s original owner.
The collection included real hair from each leader. An 1858 article about the collection noted some of the highlights, including:
- “The hair of Washington is nearly a pure white, fine and smooth in its appearance.”
- “The hair of General Jackson is almost a perfect white but coarse in its character, as might be supposed by those who have examined the portraits of the old hero.”
- “The hair of James Buchanan is perfectly white and silken.”
Varden also had Persons of Distinction in his collection. Samuel Morse, Sam Houston, Jefferson Davis, and Henry Clay all made the list. Varden asked that anyone having hair of distinguished people would donate it to the collection.
Varden moves, and the collection moves with him
Established in 1846, the Smithsonian had become Washington’s top museum by 1858. Varden and his collection moved there too, and he became a curator and manager.
Before his death in death in 1865, the collector took on typical museum duties for the time, from organizing an exhibit about Chinese tools to cleaning tobacco spit off a portrait of Zachary Taylor. But it’s his wonderful and bizarre hair collection that makes Varden still remembered today.