08 June 2021

Hair receiver, ratts, ratting, and Victorian hair art

I saw a group of these in a local auction and had to look up some information:
Although rare today, the hair receiver was a common fixture on the dressing tables of women from Victorian times to the early decades of the 20th century. Its purpose was to save hair culled from the hairbrush and comb, which were used vigorously on a daily basis. The hair could then be stuffed into pincushions or pillows. Since hair was not washed as often as it is today, oils were frequently used to add scent and shine to hair. The residual oil made the hair an ideal stuffing for pincushions because it lubricated the pins, making it easier for them to pierce material. Small pillows could be stuffed with hair, which was less prickly than pinfeathers.

But possibly most important, hair receivers made the creation of ratts possible. A ratt (sometimes spelled rat) is a small ball of hair that was inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. The ratt was made by stuffing a sheer hairnet until it was about the size of a potato and then sewing it shut.
The word "ratt" as a Victorian term for a hairdo enhancer is interesting because decades ago I remember girls "ratting" their hair with combs to give the hairdo greater size; IIRC it was a back-and-forth motion, but no hair extensions or padding was involved.  I presume the words are distantly related in terms of etymology.

Image credit.

Reposted from 2017 to add a link about Victorian hair art (three examples shown):

"Flesh rots to bone, taking our faces and figures with it. But clip a lock of hair, and it will keep its color for decades, even centuries. Thus, art crafted from hair—a 19th-century tradition in which tresses were braided into jewelry, looped to resemble flower petals, even ground up for use in pigments—remains frozen in time.

Hair art has its roots in the 17th and 18th century, when high infant mortality rates meant that “death was everywhere,” writes Karen Bachmann in an essay for the recent book Death: A Graveside Companion. “The keeping and saving of hair for future use in jewelry or other commemorative craft (such as wreaths) was common.” But it wasn’t until the Victorian era that “the ‘cult of the dead’ became almost a mania in Britain.”

Rarely does the name of the artist survive. It’s believed that most works of hair art were made by women; books on ladies’ “fancywork” provided instructions alongside other Victorian parlor crafts like needlework or wax flowers. One technique, known as palette work, required hair to be laid flat and woven into a pattern, then cut with stencils into shapes. Table work, on the other hand, called for hair to be plaited into jewelry or heirlooms. An 1867 edition of a hair art guide by Mark Campbell affirms: “Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos, the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother, or child, can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their own handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone.’”
More at the Artsy link, which is quite interesting.

A recent article in Vogue highlights the work of a modern hair artist.
"She arranges her hair one by one, gluing each strand onto delicate Japanese tissue paper before the compositions are framed in lockets or miniatures..."


  1. ratting was done with special combs with a long tapered handle that looked like a rat tail. also required hair spray, to keep that hair in place. of course, there was the associated old wives tale that ratting your hair would cause it fall out.


  2. My mom wore her hair in a bun around a rat back in rural Texas in the 1950s. I can send you a picture if you like.

  3. In 1950, I had a friend whose mother fixed her hair by coiling it around a rat--a cylindrical thing--I don't know if it was made out of hair, but I doubt it. It looked very uncomfortable to me.

  4. Of all the sites I visit, you never fail to entertain, educate, and delight me. Thank you.

  5. You can buy equivalents in the hair notions aisle still; look at BumpIts or plastic/foam hair donuts.

  6. I had my hair put into a bouffant once. The hair stylist took a lock of hair on the top of my head, held it straight up and then combed down to snarl the hair. He did that all over the top of my head until he had enough of a base to wrap the rest of my hair around.

    He warned me (and was correct) that it would take me several hours and a lot of detangler to undo that rat's nest. Ugh! Why did women do that to themselves?


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