Hair-brained idea - Woman has collected hair art for 45 years

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Leila Cohoon has hair on the brain.

Not in the literal sense. It's just that Cohoon has been collecting hair for nearly 45 years.

"I started dressing hair in 1956," said Cohoon who established and operates Leila's Hair Museum in Independence. "By 1956 I found my first piece of hair art. To say it has been an obsession would be an understatement."

The walls of the museum are lined with shadowboxes that house wreaths, flowers and family histories. In the middle of the second room, two glass cases display hundreds of pieces of hair jewelry: brooches, watch fobs, buttons and earrings.

Her oldest piece dates from 1680.

"It's a brooch that came from a family in Sweden," Cohoon said. "I've got over 200 hair wreaths and 2,000 pieces of hair jewelry."

History in hair pieces

The tiny intricate flowers, ropes and patterns crafted from hair in the wreaths and ornaments often represent history.

"This wreath is a wedding gift from 1868 in Texas," Cohoon said, pointing to an encased hair heart on the wall. "The bride and groom's hair are in the hearts, her dress is the background and the hair around them is from all the guests and family.

"She had to start about a year ahead of the wedding to get it done in time," Cohoon continued. "Just accumulating the hair would be quite a job."

It takes about one year to construct a large piece of hair art.

"We're in such a hurry we don't appreciate heritage," Cohoon said. "We don't have the patience. We're too consumed with me instead of they or us, but that's all the more reason for me to pass on this art form to those interested so it will continue."

Hair art died around the turn of the 20th century, but it still remains in tradition.

"We still have the habit today of cutting hair and saving a baby's hair, but only then and then we don't know what to do with it," Cohoon said. "I think it's because of this art form we still have it."

Cohoon said she has traced hair art to the 15th century.

"If you didn't have a camera, what would you do to make a record of your family?" Cohoon asked. "You'd take a piece of their hair. Hair was cheap and something everyone had, so why not use it?"

Cohoon said she spends about six hours daily surfing the Internet and scouring eBay for more hair art.

She said her husband "has tried to talk me out of buying more at times. He says, 'Aren't you ever going to have enough?"' Cohoon said with a grin. "I'll admit it's an obsession and I'll spend the rest of my life collecting. I have four grandchildren who are interested so they'll keep my collection going when I'm gone."

Only one in world

Cohoon founded the Independence College of Cosmetology in 1960 and taught there for 40 years. In 1989 the school moved to its present location on 23rd Street and Cohoon opened her museum.

"A gentleman in Germany has a large collection but he doesn't have a museum," Cohoon said. "So I can truly say that I have the only hair museum in the world."

Not surprisingly, many of the museum's visitors are skeptical.

"The reaction depends on their values," Cohoon said. "Antique dealers or someone in the arts appreciate it. Some think its morbid, but they change their minds when they see it's art. The rest are amazed. Most have never seen it or didn't know it existed."

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