Show of theoretical hands - how many of you saved your baby’s first haircut? Or if you haven’t any children of your own, how many of your parents saved YOUR first haircut?
Especially if you live in an English speaking country, chances are you were able to say yes to one of these. Now here’s the REAL question…
How many of those locks of hair are sitting in an envelope collecting dust in the bottom of a box that rarely gets opened?
My guess? Most of them.
What many people don’t realize is that the baby’s first haircut has been incredibly sentimental all throughout history and has manifested itself into many different traditions. Depending on religion and culture, each group of people may have different reasons for saving that first lock.
Today, however, what I see all too often is that the lock of hair is being saved without any clear reason. We seem to do it just because we know that others do. The Victorians maintained a tradition of saving locks of their children’s hair, and may be the reason why we as a modern society have followed suit due to the fact that they are our most recent ancestors to uphold this widely known custom.
The reason for their sentiment is actually rather sad. In the Victorian era, there was an incredibly high infant mortality rate. In wealthy families, the mortality rate for the first year was about 136 out of every 1000 births, and in impoverished families, that number escalated to as high as 509 out of every 1000 births. Throughout much of the Victorian era, children under the age of five accounted for approximately half of all deaths.
These rates were so staggeringly high for a number of reasons. As you might expect, disease was a major reason (thank goodness for modern medicine and vaccines!). Strict family structures and gender roles also caused many woman and children to become malnourished, as the father being the “bread-winner” would have the first and largest portion. Also considering that many poor families lived primarily on a diet of bread and tea with perhaps a small supplement of potatoes, cheese, fat, sugar, and milk it was far from the nutrition needed to maintain a healthy life.
Some reasons may be less obvious. One of the reasons was also strict discipline stemming from The Christian Proverbs which discusses the importance of discipline by physical punishment. The way some Victorian parents took this to heart, we’re not talking about a simple spank on the bottom. Some families would take this to extremes by whipping children as young as two or three for even minor behavioral issues. These, of course, are practices that by today’s standards would be considered downright abusive.
A lack of knowledge about parenting best practices was another reason for premature death. Today we have so much literature on how to best care for a baby. One of our most invaluable books may be 27 Do’s and Don’ts for Parents When Taking Care of the Baby. This as well as many other modern resources give us the tools and easy to follow instruction to be the best parents we can be.
In the Victorian era, a common practice for calming a fussy baby was giving them a dose of laudanum. Simply put, laudanum is an alcoholic solution containing morphine, prepared from opium and formerly used as a narcotic painkiller. So, I will say it again. THANK GOODNESS FOR MODERN MEDICINE! Obviously, we now know that giving this to an infant is a terrible idea. Clearly, the Victorians didn’t read this page of our insightful parenting manual.
On a more serious note, regardless of how it occurred, losing a child is devastating for a family. It was so commonplace in this era that keeping a lock of your baby’s hair was a way to keep a piece of them forever. These locks of hair would often be tied with a ribbon and fastened to the page of a book or encased within jewelry that could be forever worn and cherished.
We’re still saving the hair, but we’re not making the jewelry. Luckily, we don’t have the incredibly high mortality rates (and God forbid anything should ever happen to your baby), but a piece of jewelry memorializing your baby’s first haircut can still be a sentimental way to keep a part of your baby with you whether it be while you’re at work for the day while they’re still young or for when your baby grows and moves out on their own. This is a way to always keep a part of them close.
Your Memento Maker,