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The traveling Sutherland Sisters: Seven women and 37 feet of hair between them

Scott Antony
The Seven Sutherland Sisters

You may think that thanks to celebrity magazines, websites, and youtube how-to videos, you know all there is to know about celebrity hair. But you may not know about the Sutherland Sisters– America’s first hair stars.

The Seven Sutherland Sisters, whose names were Victoria, Sarah, Isabella, Naomi, Dora, Grace, and Mary, had 37 feet of hair between them. Before rising to stardom, the girls played instruments and sang. They were fairly successful as performers, but it soon became clear that the majority of the crowd was more enchanted, not by their music, but the sight of their magical, almost mythical, long hair.

The sisters were born between 1845 and 1865 to a poor family living on a turkey farm in Cambria in Niagara County, New York. The mother of the girls held a peculiar fixation for their long hair, which she forbade them to trim. She would slather their tresses with a horrible smelling ointment that she believed would make it grow thick and strong. The girls were constantly ridiculed for this at school by their classmates, but their mother’s word was law. At their local music performances, their father noticed how the audience, and especially the Victorian women, always coveted and admired the sisters’ long locks.

When the girls’ mother died in 1867, their father came up with the idea of using their hair to find riches. It wasn’t long before agents of circus and freak shows, which were extremely popular at the time, came knocking on Sutherland’s door. In 1882, the sisters signed a deal to tour with W. W. Coles Colossal Shows and two years later, they joined Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth as “the seven most pleasing wonders of the world.” Their shows were dignified. They stood away from circus folk and sideshow attractions and the public observed them as refined, tasteful performers with a goddess-like status. Their acts included church music and articulately told stories.

However, their father’s vision was to really multiply the family income. Recalling his wife’s odorous ointment for the girls’ hair, he decided to concoct a potent hair-growing tonic that he believed would make the cash flood in. At the time, ladies longed for lusciously long and thick hair like the sisters had, as it was considered a symbol of health, strength, and femininity, almost as if it had magical powers.

So the father joined forces with a relative of the circus magnate Bailey and founded the Sutherland Sisters Corporation. One year later, the Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower was trademarked. It was a turning point in the life of the family. They rapidly became rich beyond their beliefs and, moreover, hit the front pages of newspapers as real celebrities. By the mid-1880s, the sisters were constantly followed and approached by starstruck fans in public.

The oldest sister was Sarah and she had three feet of wavy hair, the shortest hair in the sisterhood. When the sisters posed for photo shoots, Sarah would sit and the others bend at the waist in order to make it seem as if their hair touched the ground. The one with the longest hair was Victoria, dragging a full seven feet behind her as she walked around. Naomi preferred wearing hers in a braid that was four inches thick, and when it was undone her locks fell a five and a half feet in length. Mary, the youngest, was mentally unstable and some doctors and preachers even blamed her six feet of hair for her ill-condition.

The hair-growing tonic was quite pricey. It sold for $.50 and $1.50 a jar, which equaled an average American’s weekly salary in the 1880s. However, this high price had the intention of elevating the social image of the sisters and direct the product toward women who stood on higher social scales. The sisters became ambitious businesswomen. They traveled the U.S. and promoted their products as live hair models. The crowds simply adored them. By 1890, their net worth was $3 million.

The meteoric success had a great impact on the sisters’ lives and their characters. The once-impoverished girls started spending lavishly and indulged in their new, luxurious lifestyle. In 1893, they returned home and decided to live together, building a huge mansion in rural Cambria. Their home had 14 rooms and looked like a royal castle from outside and inside as well, with turrets, cupolas, chandeliers, and marble bathrooms included. According to the 1982 edition of Yankee magazine, the sisters were much like today’s celebrities. Their pets were treated like royalty, wearing custom-made clothes and having grand funerals and obituaries published in the newspapers. Their carriage horses were covered in gold and, in addition, the sisters became great entertainers, organizing gala events at their home. Each sister had a personal maid who was paid to comb and de-tangle their hair before they went to bed at night. Booze, drug use, love triangles, and in-fighting became their daily routine, which started getting out of control. Their appearance of being proper Christians was contradicted by their wild living and unreasonable spending. And eventually, the sisters fell from grace.

In 1893, Naomi died at the age of 40, never being able to enjoy the capricious life in the mansion. The sisters were devastated by her death, but still continued touring with Barnum’s. Only one of the girls married. At the age of 50, Victoria wedded a 19-year-old man, but she passed away three years later. The mentally unwell Mary became increasingly antisocial and ended up in an asylum. Isabella died in 1914 and Sarah died in 1919.

The appeal of the Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower came to an end in the 1920s, when the flappers hopped onto the social stage, with their short bob hair. As the new wave of rebellious young women caught public attention, the prosperity of the family’s fortune fell into decline as no one longer loved or admired long locks.

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The three remaining sisters took a final trip to Hollywood, where they hoped they would sell their story. Tragically, the trip ended with a car crash in which Dora was killed. By 1931, Mary and Grace were so broke that they barely had money to buy food. In 1938, the empty mansion caught on fire and burned to the ground along with the documents and artifacts of the sisters. Mary died in 1939 and Grace followed her 7 years later. Both of them were buried in an unmarked grave.