At the end of the Nineteenth century the “Piemontesi” (people from the northern italian region Piemonte), were the first hair collectors in Italy, from the ancient French tradition, and they arrived in Friuli. The “Cjavelars” – as they were called in Friuli – use to pay well, and for people living in the mountains, where poverty was deep, was a convenient deal. The way of saying “son of a cjavelar” is still use in Codroipo, San Daniele and Tolmezzo (small mountain villages in Piemonte) to insult someone with uncertain father.
Where could the gathered braids arrive? To a fogey magistrate of the Court of London? To a French “mademoiselle”? To the wife of a Hasid rabbi in an eastern Poland village?
Few years ago, in Elva, a small, remote village on the borders of France has opened a unique museum: the Hair Museum.

For a century and a half, Elva has been indeed the core of the international trade of hair. The enchanted kingdom of “li pelassiers”. “Wait, I’m going to take the keys”, says Mr. Edo Loria, the cook of the “San Pancrazio” Occitan Inn, who takes care of the “Pels Museum”.
There is not too much traffic in Elva, the arrival of visitors off-season is an event, and the museum gets opened just for them.
The museum is a Nineteenth-century stone and larch house and clinging to the slope; it was called “Casa della Meridiana” because of the sundial on the main wall. As the spruce door opens, in the dark of the basement, it appears a photo yellowed by age of Mr. Pietro Raina, born in 1870, from the village Chiosso Superior.

Moustache, suit and tie, a pocket watch with silver chain, he leans on his right elbow on a tiled stove, and with his right hand raises wavy hair braids knotted together on the side of the root. The look in his eyes is serious, almost military; the palm of the hand is on top and the fingers are open with a feigned indifference that betrays the pride of a job and the pride of wealth conquered thanks to his talent and efforts.
Next to the photo, the tools of the trade: combs for brushing, spikes to card, basins for washing, backpack-cabinet to carry on the back, with captivating objects to charm the women and convince them to trade: laces, jewels, and scarves.
A bit of wind blows from the stable to the barn, the Casa della Meridiana is drafty, and full of whispers coming from the past, as the voices of the departed who “use to take away women’s hair to turn them into wigs”. “Ah, I felt so bad to cut the braids of beautiful girls!” as Mr. Daniele Mattalia, born in Elva in 1897, remembers in a thirty years ago testimony among documents collection of the Museum. “Our problem – explained a hair hunter to Ines Cavalcanti, expert about Occitans things – was to leave on the head of those girls just a little crown of hair. The girls of ten or twelve years were often crying, but mothers needed the money and helped with the work. I cut so many braids in Udine! We use to pay five or ten pounds for each braid, but the pounds of that time were worth much more than nowadays.

The best area was between Veneto and Friuli, mostly in the mountains, where poverty was deep and the prices more convenient. The “Piemontesi” use to go there to find the most beautiful hair, since the chill and the priest forced the girls to keep their braids packed in cloths, hidden from the light and from the eyes of men. In the south of Italy, the “pelassiers” did not go at all: the hair of southern people were too rough for the Northern Europe market, they were considered good at least to fill pillows.

Friuli and Veneto offered many advantages as well: inns to eat and good barns to sleep. Hair’s collectors could not afford hotels. They travelled in velvet suits, more difficult to crease, and after dinner they use to ask hospitality to the farmers. Their mattress was the “paion” (a sort of straw bed), and they slept inside a bag in order not to get too dirty.
Apparently, everything started by chance, towards the end of the Eighteenth century.

The legend says that two people from Elva went to Paris taking with them the hair of their sisters, and made from that deal such a fortune that all the village decided to follow them. People from the mountains were like that: they invented deals to make money and survive during the low seasons (such as wintertime).
Each valley had its deals, tells Fredo Valla, writer, director and romantic expert of the Occitan world around Monviso. In the Maira area, there were anchovy afrmers, coopers, saddlers or hurdy-gurdy men. In Varaita there were charcoal gatherer, umbrella makers, knife grinders; and many of them became taxi drivers in Marseille. From Val Chisone came many hotel maitre; people in Valle Stura knew how to make the marmots dance. In Valle Cervo people knew how to build cathedrals and how to make rabbit hats for Orthodox Jews. Since the art of wigs started, Elva had two harvests per year: hay harvest and the hair one. The second was a sort of real safari. Men, at least five hundred of them, left their home at the end of August, after the hay harvest, and they scattered all around Italy for the second mowing during the cold season. Therefore, in Elva from September to the end of April there were only women. Men returned home by May the 12th, the S. Pancrazio Patron day and hair market day. They came loaded as mules, since hair weigh a lot.
A load could arrive up to fifty pounds and it was so valuable that the Piemontesi travelled in fear of being robbed. That is why they usually moved around together, and during the night, they guarded each other.
In Elva, when old houses are restored, you can find hair often left in the interstices of the walls… They worth so much that women hid them, twisted and tied as piles of bills. Even the gold was cheaper: with ten pounds of well-treated hair, you could buy an apartment. The platinum blond was worth the most, because it could be whitened and sold to the English lords for their in full dress wigs.

Original article by Paolo Rumiz on Repubblica, 2008.


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