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Hair hunters

In a small mountain village near Cuneo, there is a museum that pays tribute to the century old tradition of hair hunters for wigs

“Mater artium necessitas”, or, more prosaically, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. This could be the motto inscribed inside the crest of the tiny village of Elva, lost at 1,700 metres above sea level in the Cuneo mountains, whose inhabitants from the mid 1800s, and for almost a century came up with a really original way of improving their livelihoods. Winters were long and grim, for those who lived of pasturelands and agriculture, and local legend tells of an idea that changed the course of history for an entire village when a young man, who had emigrated to Paris, casually discovered that human hair was in big demand. Wigs for English lords, famous actresses, or simply for noble heads, could only be made with genuine human hair, and so the inhabitant of Elva set about on their unique business of “pelassier”, or human hair harvesters.

With the arrival of autumn, the men would set off in search of the precious locks, that were worth almost as much as gold, and they’d search the north-eastern mountains of Friuli, because the hair of mountain women was stronger and more prestigious, and the ghastly poverty of those areas would force women to surrender their last resistance at pride. Going door-to-door through every farmhouse in the countryside, the hair traders proposed fabric and patches in exchange for hair, and also collected “pels dal penche”, that is hair taken from a comb, that women would keep in little boxes until the hair traders arrived.

This was a masculine trade that created a sort of female production unit, given that it was women who washed, ordered and prepared hair for its final journey to the main European (London, Paris, and Hamburg), and transoceanic cities (New York and Buenos Aires). Progress, and the introduction of synthetic fibres, gradually made the work of the hair traders obsolete, but Elva decided to pay tribute to its exclusive trade that made the village unique in the world, and set up Museo dei Pels in 2006. It was one way to keep man’s ability to survive alive.

Museo dei Caviè Museo di “Pels” (Valle Maira)
Summer opening: every day 9.00-12.00 AM/3.00-6.00 PM
December: Friday, Saturday, Sunday 9.00-12.00 AM/3.00-6.00 PM – Monday 9.00-12.00 AM – from December 20th to 31st, opened every day but 25th and 26th.
Ticket: 3.00€
Address: Borgata Serre, 12020 Elva (CN)
Telephone: +39 0175 46710
Fax: +39 0175 46718

Valentina Monti