George Washington's Hair
Framed and encased in an ornate gilt metal locket (directly from the Francis Hopkinson Family Collection), William Bunch Auctions is proud to offer for sale a deeply significant presentation of George Washington's hair. On the reverse of the frame there are two applied notes of provenance, reading as follows:
"Genl. George Washington's Hair - cut for Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson, wife of Judge Hopkinson by Mrs. Oliver Wolcot at her house 4th & Spruce Sts. Phila 1798". The second reads "Cut by Mrs. Oliver Wolcott for Mrs. Jos. Hopkinson Genl Washingtons Hair 1798 for 4th & Spruce St Phil". - (Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson / Emily Mifflin Hopkinson 1774 - 1850, Mrs. Oliver Wolcott / Elizabeth Stoughton Wolcott 1766 - 1805) (Joseph Hopkinson 1770 - 1842, Oliver Wolcott Jr. 1760 - 1833) -
Oliver Wolcott Jr. (1760 - 1833) was appointed by George Washington (1732 - 1799) as Auditor of the Treasury in 1789, and he succeeded Alexander Hamilton (1755 - 1804) as the Secretary of the Treasury from 1795 - 1800. To paint a picture of their neighborhood at the time, we reference the Thomas Scharf "History of Philadelphia" printed 1884:
"(As of 1791) the Treasury Department had its office in the old Pemberton mansion, No. 100 Chestnut Street, south west corner of Third Street. The Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, lived at 79 South Third Street, southeast corner of Walnut, and the Auditor, Oliver Wolcott at 121 South Third, on the east side, the third house north of Spruce." -1
Later, the “Stephenson's Philadelphia Directory for 1796” lists the Wolcott residence at the "corner of Spruce Sts. & Fourth.” It also lists Joseph Hopkinson at 132 Spruce Street, not the address of 338 Spruce Street known to this day as the “Hail Columbia House”. However, at that time, the numbers assigned to houses could change based on which directory you were using, be it Stephenson’s, Biddle’s or others. But, the Hopkinsons and the Wolcotts were almost certainly next-door neighbors, with 338 being adjacent to 340 Spruce on the corner of Fourth and Spruce Streets. Mary Hopkinson (1718 - 1804) , mother of Francis Hopkinson (1737 - 1791) and grandmother of Joseph, “widow and gentlewoman” is listed at 76 No. Fourth Street. George Washington's residence is listed at 190 High Street, or what is now approximately between 5th and 6th Streets on the south side of Market Street. - 2
This specific area of Philadelphia was, at the time, very significant for a multitude of reasons. The close proximity to Dock Street and the Spruce Street Landings, the relative privacy with very few homes to the west and to the southwest, and the well-to-do citizens and neighbors of this already historic location. On the “John Hills Map of Philadelphia from 1796”, the first landing just above Spruce is labeled as Hamilton’s. - 3 Also, by 1784, the Dock Creek had been completely covered, making this one of the more pristine locales in regards to sanitation.
“The area around Dock Creek was first settled in the seventeenth century. William Penn thought the mouth of the creek a good site to dock ships. Leather tanners had used Dock Creek since the city's early days, both as a water source in which to soak animal hides, and for refuse disposal. Benjamin Franklin and others petitioned to remove the tanners to a more remote part of the city in 1739. The city built a covered sewer with a brick arch, in two stages, in 1765 and 1784. In 1763, the creek was used as an open sewer and described as "a Receptacle for...Filth of various kinds, which laying exposed to the Sun and Air putrify and become extremely offensive and injurious to the Health of the Inhabitants." Residents covered the creek above Second Street by 1769 and Dock Creek was completely covered to its outlet at the Delaware by 1784.” - 4
According to The New England Magazine Volume 30 published 1904, "Wolcott's house...was the resort of the shining lights of the Federal (Federalist) Party, the centre of a social circle of such distinction as has seldom been surpassed." - 5 Like Joseph Hopkinson, Oliver Wolcott Jr.’s father was among the Founding Fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence. Wolcott was appointed to the Treasury Department by Washington, and the closeness and familiarity between their households was undeniable.
In March of 1797, Washington left the Presidency in order to return to Mt. Vernon where he planned to remain. Before leaving Philadelphia, though, he gave his “chief officers a token of regard”. As cited in “The Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams” (Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, 1846) --
“The Secretary of the Treasury (Wolcott Jr.), as it were, had grown up under his (Washington’s) eye… the warm heartedness and bonhommie of Wolcott won upon his regard… Wolcott had enjoyed much of the domestic society of the President’s house. His gentle and graceful wife had been regarded with maternal tenderness by Mrs. Washington, and was the friend and correspondent of her eldest daughter. His child had been used to climb, confident of welcome, the knees of the chief; and though so many years his junior, while Wolcott’s character and judgement had been held in respect by the President, his personal and social qualities had drawn towards him a warm degree of interest. (In 1797), on leaving the seat of government (Philadelphia), Washington presented, it is believed, to all his chief officers, some token of regard. To Wolcott he gave a piece of plate. Mrs. Washington gave to his wife, when visiting her for the last time, a relic still more interesting. Asking her if she did not wish a memorial of the General, Mrs. Wolcott replied, ‘yes’, she ‘should like a lock of his hair.’ Mrs. Washington, smiling, took her scissors and cut off for her a large lock of her husband’s, and one of her own.” - 6
(This event and the dating to 1797 are confirmed by the locket in the collection of the Mt. Vernon Museum, which has the details engraved upon the reverse.) - 7
So, why did George Washington return to the Wolcott residence in 1798?
By mid-1798, the Quasi War with France was spiraling out of control, and President John Adams attempted to summon Washington back to service. In searching the digitized correspondence at founders.archives.gov , there are numerous letters back and forth between Wolcott, Washington and other involved parties pertaining to this, and the decisions regarding the military appointments were obviously very delicate and political:
“On July 2, 1798, Adams appointed Washington to Lieutenant General and Commander of the Provisional American Army, however, controversy ensued in choosing Washington's subordinate generals. On July 11, 1798, Secretary of State James McHenry, who personally traveled to Mount Vernon, presented Washington with a letter and commission, already approved by Congress, from President Adams. Washington accepted the commission but demanded he would not actively serve unless the French invaded the United States. A terrible controversy ensued over Washington's suggested appointments for his subordinate generals. Adams, who both respected and was jealous of Washington's military prowess, reluctantly agreed. Washington chose his former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who was recommended to Adams by Washington to be appointed Major General and Inspector General of the Army, while Henry Knox and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were to serve as major generals. Knox, who desired Hamilton's position, protested to Adams, who contemplated the change. When McHenry and Adam's Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr. protested Knox as second in command, Adams demurred to Washington and appointed Hamilton instead of Knox, who refused to take his commission as a major general.” - 8
With the pressing need for a resolution starkly apparent, Washington left Mt. Vernon and returned to Philadelphia. From the State Museum of Pennsylvania:
“George Washington emerged from his retirement to accept command of the United States Army – on the condition that he would remain at his home at Mount Vernon until the threat of a French invasion was imminent. While the invasion never materialized, Washington visited Philadelphia for a final time from November to December 1798 to discuss strategy with United States Secretary of War.” - 9
Then, in a letter from Alexander Hamilton in November of 1798, we find that Hamilton was staying with the Wolcott’s during his time in Philadelphia from his residence in New York. He adds to the end of his letter that Washington is also expected to arrive at the Wolcott’s that very day:
“To Elizabeth Hamilton
Philadelphia November 10. 1798
I wrote to you, My Eliza, from Trenton. Yesterday afternoon I arrived at this place. I have yielded to the pressing solicitations of Mr. Wolcott to take up my abode at his house, which you know is at the corner of Spruce and Fourth Streets. Mrs Wolcott is in better health than she was but is still very thin and feeble. Without much more care than the thing is worth, her stay in this terrestrial scene is not likely to be long. She desires her affectionate compliments to you.
I am quite well, but I know not what impertinent gloom hangs over my mind, which I fear will not be entirely dissipated until I rejoin my family. A letter from you telling me that you and my dear Children are well will be a consolation. I presume before this reaches you Mrs Church and Philip will have gone to Elisabeth Town. General Washington was at Chester last night. He will be here about twelve to-day.” - 10
This was to be their final reunion at the Wolcott residence, Fourth and Spruce Streets Philadelphia. Washington had already said his goodbyes the previous year, had already retired to Mt. Vernon in his mind, and had no intention of returning again. As noted, Mrs. Wolcott was already given a lock of hair from Martha Washington (one from her and one from George) and surely this gift was a topic of great discussion among the Wolcott’s and their friends and neighbors.
And so, our final assumption is as follows: Mrs. Wolcott, already in possession of some of his hair, cut this lock of George Washington’s hair to be given to Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson as a sign of their mutual friendship and comradery. This locket of hair, already a relic treasure from the most prominent of all Americans, through its own history, ascends to levels of grandeur and mystique that few or none of the other known parcels of hair can match. Proven to be swimming deep in the history of the United States, this item provides an extraordinary window into the most curious practice of “hair memorials”. Upon the death of Francis Hopkinson, “following the custom of the times, Ann Hopkinson made a mourning brooch to commemorate her bereavement. A lock of Hopkinson’s hair is contained on this brooch, with these engraved words: ‘Francis Hopkinson Departed this Life 9th of May 1791. Forgive the wish that would have kept you here.’” - 11
From an article by historian Robert Peck in Antiques, The Magazine :
“The presentation and display of hair from an admired friend or loved one, which reached its peak in the nineteenth century, had been common among well-to-do families for more than a century. Martha Washington was said to have ‘always’ worn a locket that ‘almost invariably… contained a miniature of her husband, generally with a lock of his hair set in the back, to which she attached a great deal of sentiment’
...The inexhaustible appetite for Washington talismans can be seen in letters Martha received after her husband’s death. In January 1800 the famous Boston silversmith Paul Revere and two others wrote to the president’s widow on behalf of the Masons’ Grand Lodge of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to ask for a lock of her husband’s hair. In their letter they explained that if it was given, a golden urn would be prepared to hold the hair, “an invaluable relique [sic] of the Hero and the Patriot whom Their wishes would immortalize.” Tobias Lear responded favorably to the request on Mrs. Washington’s behalf. The hair Lear sent, and the diminutive gold urn that Revere made to contain it, are still counted among the most precious possessions of the Grand Lodge
...In succeeding decades, as America’s population grew in size and ethnic diversity, families whose ancestry predated the Revolution took special pride in their heritage. The descendants of those who had fought in the Revolution and known Washington personally often sought ways to display those connections by literally wearing evidence of them on their sleeve—or lapel or finger—in the form of cufflinks, brooches, lockets, or rings that reputedly contained the president’s hair or that of his wife...” - 12
“John Hills Map of Philadelphia from 1796”