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George Washington's Hair

How Early Americans Remembered the Founders
Keith Beutler

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813946504 · $34.50 · Nov 2021
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813946511 · $29.50 · Nov 2021

Mostly hidden from public view, like an embarrassing family secret, scores of putative locks of George Washington’s hair are held, more than two centuries after his death, in the collections of America’s historical societies, public and academic archives, and museums. Excavating the origins of these bodily artifacts, Keith Beutler uncovers a forgotten strand of early American memory practices and emerging patriotic identity.

Between 1790 and 1840, popular memory took a turn toward the physical, as exemplified by the craze for collecting locks of Washington’s hair. These new, sensory views of memory enabled African American Revolutionary War veterans, women, evangelicals, and other politically marginalized groups to enter the public square as both conveyors of these material relics of the Revolution and living relics themselves.

George Washington’s Hair introduces us to a taxidermist who sought to stuff Benjamin Franklin’s body, an African American storyteller brandishing a lock of Washington’s hair, an evangelical preacher burned in effigy, and a schoolmistress who politicized patriotic memory by privileging women as its primary bearers. As Beutler recounts in vivid prose, these and other ordinary Americans successfully enlisted memory practices rooted in the physical to demand a place in the body politic, powerfully contributing to antebellum political democratization.


How do you cherish the memory of your dead father? Keith Beutler’s fascinating book suggests this is more complicated than we might expect. In investigating this unexplored aspect of the founding, Beutler reveals there is more here than meets the eye.

Robert G. Parkinson, Binghamton University · The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution

Riffing on George Washington’s hair, Beutler follows nineteenth century antiquarians, free Blacks, educators, and evangelicals as they tried to hold on to the founding era while making sense of their own. This lively book wears its erudition lightly.

Catherine E. Kelly, William and Mary · Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America

Keith Beutler teases new meaning from venerable historical relics, clipped and collected since the winter at Valley Forge. George Washington’s hair emerges as a pocket-sized counterpart to Mount Vernon or the Washington Monument, all memory-objects that richly illuminate the story of American national identity.

Susan P. Schoelwer, George Washington's Mount Vernon

About the Author(s): 

Keith Beutler is Professor of History at Missouri Baptist University.

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