In the collection of a small historical society in Syracuse, New York, is a unique and seldom-seen object: an 1864 eagle on a globe made entirely of hair contributed by leading politicians and their wives, most notably President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
It was created for the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, an exposition to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency supporting the sick and wounded soldiers of the United States Army. Local women’s charitable groups affiliated with the USSC had successfully thrown fairs before in Chicago and Boston, and the Beneficent Ladies of New York followed suit in April of 1864. (These unapproved initiatives caused some consternation among the all-male Commissioners at USSC headquarters in Washington, but they could not deny the hundreds of thousands of dollars the fairs brought in.)
When the Metropolitan Fair was still early in the planning stages — the venue hadn’t even been determined yet — the committee appealed to individuals and businesses in New York and around the world for contributions of money and exhibits to entice visitors and raise funds for the cause. The expositions had pavilions showcasing all kinds of militaria, memorabilia, crafts and curiosities with heavy emphasis on Union patriotism linking the dramatis personae of the Civil War (Grant’s sword) and Revolutionary War heroes (Washington’s camp chest).
According to press accounts of the Fair, Mrs. Caroline Wright, wife of the former Governor of Indiana and Senator Joseph A. Wright, commissioned Brooklyn jewelers Spies & Champney to create a national symbol out of the hair of nationally-important politicians. The letter Spies & Champney sent to President Lincoln in January 1864 soliciting “as large a lock as you can well spare” is in the Library of Congress.
It’s pretty remarkable that from January they were able to receive locks of hair from dozens of top politicians and their wives in time to weave such a large, intricate, detailed design which was completed and framed in time for exhibition at the Fair on April 4th. It hung on one of the piers of the Temple of Flora, the pavilion showcasing dramatic floral arrangements.
“The Hairy Eagle” was singled out for praise in the New York Herald‘s account of the fair printed on opening day, April 4th, 1864, issue.
The curiosities in the Fair may be numbered by the thousand; but of all the strange and curious things, the hairy eagle is, without doubt, entitled to take the highest flight. It has winged its way from Indiana, having been donated to the Fair by Mrs. Governor Wright, of that State. It measures about twelve inches in length, and the head, eyes and back bone of this curious bird are formed of hair from the head of President Lincoln. The bill is formed of Secretary Chase’s hair, being symbolical of greenbacks and other bills. The wing feathers are made of hair from the heads of thirty-four prominent Senators, arranged in the order of their age. The tail and parts of the body are also of hair. Crowning this airy nothing is a wreath formed of the hair of the wives of representative men. It will be hung at the front of the pillar on the right of the Floral Temple, and underneath will be a small book, in which all admirers of President Lincoln will be allowed to enter their names on paying one dollar for the privilege of doing so. The money will go for the benefit of the Fair. The eagle, together with the book of autographs, will ultimately be presented to President Lincoln.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper edition of April 23, 1864, sang the fair’s praises on the front page, and in a humorous take on the exhibits and visitors, recounted that the book had nothing like a thousand signatures yet. It also threw in a couple of burns on Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the only cabinet member not to contribute hair as he “had none to spare,” and Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania who was “innocent of a single hair, and has sported a wig for the last 20 years.”
Whether the goal of $1000 and 1000 signatures was met is unknown, but the report of the fair compiled three years later noted that the book was so popular 400 signatures and $400 were collected within the first three days of the Fair. We do know the Hairy Eagle was never presented to Mrs. Lincoln or the President. Instead, it hung in the window of the Champney & Smitten shop in Brooklyn for many years. It moved upstate in the 19teens with Francis Champney’s wife Ida. After his death, she moved to Syracuse to live with their daughter Mrs. Sarah Wanamaker. The family donated the Hairy Eagle to the Onondaga Historical Association some time before 1917. With the weaving she donated a key that maps and lists all the different hair contributors.
No OHA records of the acquisition survive, but one undated newspaper clipping in the OHA archives calls Ida’s gift “both historic and extremely artistic,” adding, “There is no better specimen of patience and wonderful intricate weaving.”
According to OHA curator Thomas H. Hunter, the wreath has never been loaned out to another organization. A man alleging to own an article of Lincoln’s bloodstained clothing once requested to remove some of the president’s hair from the sculpture for a DNA test, but as Hunter recalls with a droll smile, “I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.'”
Encased in a wood frame covered with convex glass, the Hairy Eagle’s reverse is covered with plaster of Paris. “Basically, it’s hermetically sealed; there’s never been any examination of [the wreath],” Hunter says. “If it were opened now, the deterioration process would be exponentially accelerated. … I would never want to chance that.”
The OHA only displays the Hairy Eagle only on rare special occasions to keep it out of the light as much as possible. The last time it was exhibited was February 2019 to celebrate the 210th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.