No matter who we are, old or young, fashion conscious or style indifferent, we are all aware of hair. We wash it; we comb it; we cut, curl, and dye it. Hair can be envied or derided, and hair can provide clues to everything from age to culture to genetic identity to health. To a nineteenth-century amateur naturalist named Peter A. Browne, hair was of paramount importance: he believed it was the single physical attribute that could unravel the mystery of human evolution.
Thirty years before Charles Darwin revolutionized understanding of the descent of man, Browne vigorously collected for study what he called the “pile” (from the Latin word for hair, pilus) of as wide a variety of humans (and animals) as possible in his quest to account for the differences and similarities between groups of humans. The result of his diligent, obsessive work is a fastidious, artfully assembled twelve-volume archive of mammalian diversity. Browne’s growing quest for knowledge became an all-consuming specimen-collecting passion. By the time of his death in 1860, Browne had assembled samples from innumerable wild and domestic animals, as well as the largest known study collection of human hair. He obtained hair from people from all parts of the globe and all walks of life: artists, scientists, abolitionist ministers, doctors, writers, politicians, financiers, military leaders, and even prisoners, sideshow performers, and lunatics. His crowning achievement was a gathering of hair from thirteen of the first fourteen presidents of the United States. The pages of his albums, some spare, some ornately decorated, many printed ducit amor patriae―led by love of country―are distinctly idiosyncratic, captivating, and powerfully evocative of a vanished world.
Browne’s albums have been sequestered in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia to which Brown bequeathed them, narrowly escaping destruction in the 1970s. They are a unique manifestation of the avid collecting instinct in nineteenth-century scientific endeavors to explain the mysteries of the natural world.