Artefact of the Month

The Five Lives of the Braid of János Kovács

March, 2019


János Kovács, a national guardsman in the War of 1848, was a man who wore his grey-peppered brown locks in a thick, 52-centimetre braid.  The strands of his coiffure were so sticky – presumably as a result of the pork grease used to groom them – that they held together at the braid’s end without the use of string.

Remarkably, nothing else is known about guardsman Kovács:  what part he played in the events of 1848, what wartime adventures he may have had, what wounds he sustained, how he was discharged, where he went into hiding.  To us, only his hair remains, filed as inventory number 83967 in the Textiles and Costumes Collection of the Museum of Ethnography.  Thus, like many thousands of other objects – cloaks, chairs, peace pipes, kimonos – the braided hair of János Kovács became, and remains, an ethnographic artefact.  Why, then, do curators, restoration experts, museologists, and photographers all recoil when required to pick it up?  Is it possible that it is not a museum piece at all, but rather something that, as a part of the former János Kovács’s private person and carrier of his specific DNA, resides somewhere along the lines of tension that exist between subject and object?

If we look upon this “field of oppposing forces” with the intent to analyse, what we find are five distinct lives:  clearly delineated time frames, separated chiefly by whether the braid during the period in question behaved rather as subject or object.

In 1848, János Kovács would have been between 20 and 50 years old, the required age for guard membership.  During the initial decades of the 19th century, peasant men typically wore their hair long, binding it and pinning it up in any number of different ways, despite the fashion for shorter locks then beginning to spread under the influence of villagers who had formerly served in the military.  János Kovács, it would seem, had resisted this trend, and upon entering the guard in the spring of 1848, had worn his hair in a braid.  He would subsequently become parted from his coif, though probably not during this particular phase of service, as the national guard, though a civil formation with an affinity for uniforms, regulations, and training, in fact demonstrated little consistency in enforcement, as evinced by surviving contemporary depictions of long-haired, loose-trousered guardsmen armed with straightened scythes for weaponry.

It is far more likely, therefore, that the hair in question was cut in the autumn of 1848, when the men of the guard were absorbed by the regular Hungarian army, given arms and uniforms, and, in accordance with the former practice of the Austro-Hungarian army, shorn of their locks.  Kovács was not the only man to preserve his hair that day; indeed, the practice was common in Hungarian battalions.  What we do not know for certain is what considerations may have led to the gesture.

Army recruitment in Kovács’s day occurred within a political environment that was vastly different from that of earlier times of forced conscription:  volunteers – some able, others less so – flocked to join national forces in numbers that exceeded the government’s hopes, 80% of them from among the agricultural population.  It was an exceptional phenomenon, one whose historical significance was palpable even then, which resulted in a synchronisation of individual life courses to a time-stream that was to alter the fate of the nation.  The material vestige of the haircut that represented a man’s fitness for duty – i.e. the removed hair itself – was a carrier for that synchronised time aggregate, a fact that may explain its preservation as a souvenir.

There is, however, another possible explanation, one having to do with the magical notions associated with hair in various cultures.  In some cases, a haircut is viewed as a form of mutilation and is therefore used and experienced as a punitive measure.  In others, the covering of a woman’s hair is an unequivocal mark of status, called upon to limit the undesirable, near-magical effect of her outward beauty.  Among the Hungarian peasantry, the longest-lived belief regarding hair (and nails) was that which prohibited their casual discard, holding until very recently that cast-off hair should be securely burnt to prevent its use in black magic.  Thus, among army commoners, the cutting of one’s hair represented not only a transition from civil to military life, but also a degree of helplessness in which the soldier, if unable to cast his hacked-off knot into the fire, could at least keep it safely hidden among his effects.

The second and third lives of the braid of János Kovács occurred during the time of the Hungarian Revolution and following its owner’s discharge, respectively.  In them, subject was gradually transformed into object, though one not yet far removed from the parts of its past that gave it meaning.  In the fiction that has been woven around the lives of the braid since then, it is this period that offers the fewest facts on which to base any opinion; and while our collective ethnographic knowledge may permit us to envision it lying somewhere at the bottom of a chest or up high on a wall cupboard shelf, in reality all we know is that in the year 1910, the braid was still around to be discovered.

And so eventually it was, specifically, by painter and ethnographic collector Ákos Garay (1866-1952) in the course of his research on “old Hungarian men’s hairstyles”.  Garay’s fieldwork covered the entire Carpathian Basin, though the articles he would subsequently ship to the museum were primarily from the Tolna-Baranya-Somogy region.  Garay had been raised among the farmhands, maids, and herdsmen of Apát-puszta, near Szekszárd, relationships that likely aided him in his study, collection, and sketch art of men’s hairstyles.  Though the manner of his arrival in Mocsolád is unknown, it is not improbable that the connection to the former national guardsman and his family had something to do with Garay’s father.  Antal Garay had been a lieutenant during the War for Liberation and had nurtured its cult until his death.  The elder Garay had even been buried with a fragment of the 49th battalion flag over his heart and had left his sword to his son.


To the younger Garay, the story of the braided hairstyle and its relationship to the War of 1848 was an important detail, one he would describe in a dedicated research paper introduced via the following statement:  “In Hungary, it is claimed by elders in various areas of the country that the men’s fashion for plaited hair was abandoned in 1848.  Until then, men wore their hair in the same manner as women.”  Garay’s field method was unusual.  Having already completed an exciting series of water colour paintings of peasant and herdsmen’s hairstyles in the 1880s and ‘90s, he knew exactly what he was looking for. 

On his collecting tour of 1909-1911 – perhaps with the rapid disappearance of the old-fashioned styles in mind – he carried with him an assemblage of wigs, a tool that would permit the re-creation of the old csimbókos, gombos, varkocsos, and sodrott hairstyles his informants had once worn, along with such older styles as the villagers still remembered.  Because the coiffures were created by the villagers themselves, some of the wigs, fashioned from the hair of unknown third parties, still have concrete names attached.  The hairstyle of elderly farmhand Antal Horváth, for example, who had died in Apáti-puszta in 1876, was reconstructed by his son, hajduk József Horváth, who – though he wore his hair short himself – may be regarded as a credible source, as in childhood, he had often helped his father create his plaited coiffure (csimbókok) himself.  Garay’s work produced a total of nine men’s wigs, which, along with the braid of János Kovács (the one piece that was not a reconstruction), entered museum inventory in 1911 and were immediately set upon plaster heads for display in the institution’s exhibition.

Now in the fourth stage of its life, Kovács’s braid had become a true ethnographic object – or more accurately, an ethnographic object category.  Though the piece was inventoried, neither Kovács’s name, nor the story of his participation in the War of 1848 were included on its file card.  Indeed, that information, seen as unnecessary for a typical old Hungarian man’s hairstyle, were preserved only by Garay’s own study, published that same year.


As an ethnographic object, however, the braid has had numerous additional lives – ones not created by the intentions of the collector, but by the museum’s own peculiar system of relationships.  The museum owns several dozen “items” made from human hair, including women’s braids from Japan, India, Africa, the Hungarian Great Plain, and Transdanubia; alongside men’s locks from Baranya, South America, and Oceania.  Behind the museumification of these brown, blonde, black, curly, and straight-haired pieces lie a variety of different considerations.  Some of them, like Garay’s wigs, are reconstructions:  they model – using foreign hair – a Tunesian wedding outfit or Indonesian hairstyle, and in doing so, drift very close to that area in which an ethnographic object risks generating illusion in the name of the documentation, archivisation, and representation of lost life worlds.  Another group preserve the memory of that universal scientific movement in ethnology that embraced physical anthropology, gathering from the four corners of the globe not just skulls, but even hair samples as marks of race.  A third category of hair-objects, including indigenous American scalps, plant-fibre wigs of the men of the African Bapende tribe (worn for the benefit of women), and hairpieces used in creating Hungarian brides’ wedding buns, bear the ethnographic meanings that lie anchored in their respective local cultures.

In its museum life, the nearest relatives to the braid of János Kovács are not the locks of hair cut from and preserved by 1848 soldiers that now reside in other institutions:  historic relics whose meanings place them closer to the cockade of Júlia Szendrei or parting letter of János Damjanich than to the wig Ferenc Abai fashioned to resemble the hairstyle of Hajdúböszörmény cowherd Ferenc Szolnoki, his maternal grandfather.  If the braid’s museum meaning is examined in terms of the subject-object spectrum, then it will be found more closely related to the hair Lajos Bíró  purchased in German New Guinea around the time of Garay’s fieldwork.  The circumstances under which this – the hair of indigenous men Mátátun, Pálep-langoá, Tászŭ, Abumtam, and Umbimi – was collected is recorded in Bíró’s diary:  “Before cutting, I bound up the entire head of hair using the rattan ribbon still seen today, then cut it all at once so as to preserve the locks exactly as they were...”.  For Bíró’s benefit, the adult of the Jabim tribe dictated for him the following local expressions:  muki belá (long, twisted locks), muki tená (long, frizzled hair), mukinkátu (used to describe Bíró’s own short hair) and poábelá, pábelá (knot of hair covered in red mud and oil).