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The Seven Sutherland Sisters

Wealth of Hair Brings Riches to

'Seven Sutherland Sisters'

Strange Story of the Sutherland Sisters

     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 


 

by Brandon Stickney


 

They were America's first celebrity models. In the 1880s, fashion's era of bustles and puffs, they became one of the sexiest, most popular performing attractions in The Greatest Show on Earth, claiming a World Record for the longest haired family. P.T. Barnum called them "the seven most pleasing wonders of the world" as they attracted great throngs along the glittering midway. They came from the poverty of Cambria, New York, a rural farm community, and rode their dynamic singing talent and exotic looks to wealth and international fame, becoming global trendsetters, and even marrying into royalty. Their magical quality for personal and public reinvention made them divine.

As Gilded Age divas, they sang, played piano, modeled, and offered hair care and beauty advice to millions. They labored endlessly to stay at the forefront of American hair fashion, their controversial methods drawing wide attention and intense scrutiny. They had hair magnetism; hair was their art, their source of power and eventual wealth. In the days when few people trusted physicians, when secret home-made remedies, quackery, and self-doctoring flourished, they helped set the standards by which models and celebrities would endorse and sell namesake beauty products, launching a marketing industry that today banks on fame-selling. Yet, they were equally superstitious, eccentric, mystical, and notorious, muses of complex psychology and motivation. Their lives, their ambitions, virtues, humor, and dramas were much greater than the stuff of the greatest fiction. Then, as if somehow voided from the annals of Americana, they just disappeared.
 


They were Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora, and Mary­ the amazing Seven Sutherland Sisters, shoeless hometown girls who quickly made it big. Their story began with their rogue father's natural gift for drawing attention, helping them to earn places on Madison Avenue and Wall Street, and to enter a world the family had never before known. Yet their meteoric rise and spectacular careers would end in desperation and destruction in Hollywood. As hair historian Bill Severn noted, "Everything they did was news and for years their hair made Sutherland a household name." The seven sisters were responsible for pushing news of Presidents Hayes through Taft off the front pages of the newspapers. Though the household name of the turn of the century has been usurped by a new world of celebrity models and hair and beauty products, the Sutherlands were all but forgotten, creating an interesting duality of fame. From Cambria, New York, to London, England, valuable collections of circus souvenirs, sideshow memorabilia, cabinet cards, books, albums, bottles and product promotions, fading photographs, newspaper clippings, and word of mouth folklore have kept the Sutherlands alive and selling for over 150 years. Yet their true legacy has somehow vanished from the American memory.

Born between 1846 and 1864, the sisters began singing to church and fair audiences in their hometown of Cambria when they were children. Taking a lead from their exhibitionist scalawag father, the precocious sisters rapidly learned the show business trade. This singing super group's vaudeville and stage entertainment careers spanned nearly fifteen years and hundreds of performances, while their subsequent three decades of successful entrepreneurial beauty product ventures ended in a bizarre series of tragedies.

While their lives and the lengths of their hair (never shorter than three feet, sometimes as long as seven) seemed in constant flux, the Sutherland sisters defining qualities and vastly different personalities made them distinctive, even as they continually traveled, performed, modeled and marketed as a cohesive unit.

Sarah Sutherland, the first born, was a coy brunette, wicked yet inviting, with rugged features and a strong chin. Her blue eyes and three to four feet of hair were the primary factors of her intense prettiness. A leather-covered Bible her constant companion, Sarah used her talents as a high solo soprano and pianist to become a revered music teacher and, later, the band leader for the Seven Sutherland Sisters concert group. As the eldest sister, she also guided the family through early misfortunes and proved to be an accomplished businesswoman in the world of fashion.

A mezzo-soprano, Victoria, the second sister, boasted diamonds on her fingers and gold on her neck, with a startling seven feet of wavy brown hair, of which fans would beg for clippings. Named for the Queen of England, Victoria had a soft, subtle look, mousy eyes and nose, and long cheeks as a young lady, with an attitude to boot. She inherited the brashness and love of finer things from her father, and withheld her true love for a man until she was far beyond childbearing years. Marrying a preacher's son three decades her junior, Victoria lived her final years in virtual seclusion in a Manhattan brownstone.

With dark eyes like her younger brother, the baritone Charles Sutherland, the third sister, Isabella, had six feet of flowing, frizzy black hair. It was this hair, in fact, that was one of the only qualities that allowed Isabella to resemble her sisters, her thin facial features and lean body leading some to believe she was a first cousin. A rich tenor, poet, dreamer and tragically lost heart with worried brow and disappearing lips, Isabella rejected religion and clung to untamable men, marrying twice and finally betraying her sisters at the height of Sutherland prosperity.

The fourth sister, chatty Grace, was humorous and elegant with five feet of beautiful auburn hair. With ice blue eyes like those of her mother, a near constant grin and locks coquettishly tucked behind each ear, Grace, an alto singer, was the great communicator, managing most business and personal correspondence and attempting to make peace among her sisters, from backstage tiffs to legal battles. She lived the longest, to enjoy the fame and riches, but also suffer every calamity that struck the family. Though she may have endured a broken engagement, and never took a husband, she was appointed to raise her sister's three children.

Busty and irreverent, Naomi, the fifth sister, sported the sly smile of Grace and a Roman nose on her plump face. With five and a half feet of four-inch deep curly hair, she was one the most distinctively talented female singers of the turn of the century, with a deep bass voice "that brought the men to their knees," a newspaper noted. As the Sutherland business prospered, Naomi and Grace proved to be among the family's best saleswomen, as in touch with the desires of their parlor clientele as they were with the demands of their big concert audiences. The most loyal and matronly of the seven, Naomi married a showman and had three talented children who would follow in the sisters footsteps. Naomi seemed made for motherhood and almost too good for this world.

The most startlingly attractive of the sisters, Dora, the sixth by birth, maintained four and a half to six feet of hair over the years. She had the face of a dreamy 19th century pinup, a turned up nose and a sentimental pout that could melt any heart. An alto, Dora was referred to as "the cute one" in her Broadway and circus days. She used her sharp mind to succeed as an incorrigible flirt and later, to set herself apart from most of the family as a perspicacious businesswoman and entrepreneur in the Canadian territories, remaining so devoted to the Sutherland corporation that her interests thrived long after others' withered.

The seventh sister, Mary, had an admirable brown mane of six chaotic feet. Though her smoky moon face, deep eyes and full lips were remarkable, Mary, the family felt, was sometimes best understood from a distance. Her stage talent fleeting, alto singing unreliable, and numerous tantrums baffling, Mary suffered from an illness few could grasp at the time. Though she would outlive most of her siblings, Mary spent the majority of her life in the confines of her own head, the madness attributed by some doctors and preachers to various factors, including the length of her hair. 

From the time the Sutherlands were girls, America was enjoying great economic and industrial evolutions. The United States went from a largely agricultural country to the most powerful land of industry in the world. Travel changed from horse-drawn buggies and railroads to automobiles. Technological advances of this era included the telegraph, the ocean steamer, modern machine tools, farm machinery, petroleum, photography, the sewing machine, the rotary printing press, gaslight, the telephone, home plumbing, and electric lighting. Popular entertainment went from the stage to the traveling circus and then to the stage again. Fashion display and beauty product advertising morphed from artistic illustrations into popular photography and celebrity modeling. Just twenty miles south of the Sutherlands' hometown, Buffalo and Niagara Falls were the leading cities of industry, commerce and medical advancements in the nation, ushering in the age of electricity and hydropower.

A noted family of inventors, entrepreneurs, businessmen, preachers, politicians, doctors, and war heroes, the Sutherlands played a vital role in their day. Colonel Andrew Sutherland, the grandfather of the seven sisters, established the Sutherland homestead in Cambria and led a powerful western New York militia in the War of 1812. Col. Sutherland also had a gift for creation and invention. His son, Fletcher Sutherland, the father of the seven girls, was a preacher, singer, writer, inventor, and politician, who worked for President Buchanan. Fletcher knew how to gain attention; he was nearly killed twice for his views on state rights and his opposition to the Civil War. He was described in one report as "a man of marked ability, noted for his powerful personality, original thought, studious habits and analytical mind."

Fletcher Sutherland pushed his genetically gifted, long-haired daughters and one son into show business. Their unusually long hair and fine voices propelled the Sutherlands from Cambria to larger stages in Buffalo, to cheering audiences in Rochester, highbrow venues on Broadway with nationally syndicated performance troupes, and eventual recruitment for an amazing journey with P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey's internationally popular traveling circus. A featured attraction at three American expositions, the Sutherlands earned top billing with Barnum in the mid-1880s. Yet they were not the typical circus performers. Like Barnum, the Sutherlands shied away from identifying themselves as "circus" people; instead they were mystical show ladies, what Barnum called "the seven wonders, the strongest drawing card on earth," promising dignified entertainments and demanding intimate, intelligent interactions with their audiences. They were not reviled, feared, cursed or spat upon like the common circus freaks of the day. Rather, the Sutherlands were celebrated as mysterious and promoted as respectable, educated and intriguing. They engaged their audiences in stimulating conversation and told marvelous stories. Though their shows, consisting of church music, parlor songs and drawing-room ballads, received rave reviews, it was ultimately the girls' hair that seemed the biggest draw, when the nation was gripped by an obsession with hair as well as an epidemic of diseases and bad medicines that were causing people's hair to fall out.

As essayist Elisabeth Gitter explained, long hair was an "obsession" in the Victorian period in Europe and America. "In painting and literature, as well as in their popular culture, [Victorians] discovered in the image of women's hair a variety of rich and complex meanings, ascribing to it powers both magical and symbolic." In the writings of Browning, Dickens, Thackeray, Yeats and others, a woman's enchanting tresses could shelter and protect her lover, yet they could also ensnare and suffocate. Long hair was seen as an opportunity, one that could attract great wealth, accompanied by wealth's privileges and dangers.

The broad interest in the Sutherland sisters' hair and the public's medical problems gave Fletcher the idea to begin producing and selling a hair tonic with the family name as its signature. As patent medicine historian Gerald Carson explained, the Sutherlands lived in the days when, "with an occasional glance at the vats and reports, and the bottling, corking, and labeling, a diligent, clever, and industrious promoter with a good grasp of popular psychology could make a handsome living without half trying."

The Sutherlands might not have been as successful without the help of Merchant's Gargling Oil king John Hodge, who operated successfully at the turn of the century when western New York was a popular base of pharmaceutical manufacturing. The Sutherlands also had the commercial wizardry of Fletcher's son-in-law, J. Henry Bailey, who actively marketed himself as a close relative of circus genius James A. Bailey. Carson noted:
 

Before the federal Pure Food and Drug Act went into effect, a man interested in a secret preparation could calculate that the average drugstore in the United States sold twenty-five bottles of patent medicine every day, which added up to a national consumption of 365 million bottles per annum. 

 
The Sutherlands launched high-end tonics and solutions with big price tags, ranging between 50 cents to $1.50 per bottle, depending on the product. Considering that the average American earned about $2 to $15 a week in the late 1880s when the Sutherland tonics were introduced, the sophisticated marketing and pricing was meant to attract the wealthy while convincing the middle class that the steep prices meant they were getting the real thing. As the corporation grew, investments were made in improving the effectiveness and diversifying the number of Sutherland beauty products, from dandruff cures to facial creams, and soon the days of snake oil were behind them.

During and after their careers, the Sutherland sisters were featured in the pages of Cosmopolitan, McClure's, Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York World, Time, Reader's Digest, Theatre, and Billboard. They were celebrated by the poet Carl Sandburg, by novelist Dawn Powell, by Jazz Age artist John Held, Jr., and by the actress Lillie Langtry. While their lives were far more controversial, the Sutherlands were as popular as other turn of the century stage and fashion celebrities whose legacies have endured the test of time: Mae West, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Jenny Lind, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb, Chang & Eng, and, of course, Barnum.

The Sutherlands were also revered as a medical wonder in scholarly publications of the day. The Sutherlands sang, modeled, and sold luxury. With the long-haired girls proudly pictured on each box as a registered trademark, the Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower proclaimed, "To our patrons: The enclosed preparation is manufactured and used by ourselves and we recommend it as the best in the world." In addition to using the sisters as living proof, the name and portrait of "Rev. Fletcher Sutherland" appeared in most of their advertising. The preacher's title fostered a label of pious honesty to accompany their claims.

The Sutherland business was among the top corporate beauty product manufacturers and marketers at the turn of the century. A staggering two and a half million bottles of hair grower were sold by 1890, just about four years after production began, and more than $3 million in reported income was realized.

While their concert audiences had regularly packed performance halls from Buffalo to Los Angeles, their hair tonic customers clogged the streets of New York City, causing the sisters to be banned from posing in shop windows. Sometimes they were followed, sometimes they were mobbed. All a Sutherland sister had to do was glide down the street with her torrents of miraculous hair dancing in tow to ignite interest and attract throngs of excited people. Together, the sisters were so spell-binding, any customer would gladly hand over a week's pay for the promise that the Sutherland-brand formulas could work such wonders for nearly anyone. To meet a Sutherland sister was to meet a true celebrity; the family's programs, photos, calling cards, and lithographs were frame-worthy, suitable for decoration in any household or museum, immediately valuable collectors' items, especially if signed by one of the seven.

With the unparalleled sales of their secret hair growing compound, the Sutherland family members were soon making more money than they could manage, yet spending far beyond their means on attendants, maids, valets, clothing, pets, gold and diamonds, houses, travel, drink and even the male callers who dared love the wild sisters.

J. Henry Bailey and the Sutherlands left the circus in early 1886 and founded a corporation, which, at one time, had more than 28,000 dealers from Buffalo to China. The income level was so high, and overhead so low, that the Sutherlands made more money annually over nearly a decade than the Barnum & Bailey Circus, not counting a sizeable portion of Sutherland income and ancillary profits that, for one reason or another, went unrecorded.

The Sutherlands, unlike so many stage celebrities and successful businesspeople of the age whose careers propelled them around the globe, decided to invest in their pastoral hometown of Cambria. Throughout the sisters' lives, Buffalo and western New York continued to grow in economic importance to the nation. Hoping to remain together in that land of promise, the sisters ordered the construction of a grand mansion that would serve as their home base as well as an infrequent locale for corporate meetings. While they had typical family disagreements, the Sutherland sisters wanted to live together forever; the unique home was a symbol of their unity in business and life. Environed by thousands of acres of neighboring farm properties and woodlands, the Sutherland mansion was a place of celebration, audacity, and mystery, the talk of the town, becoming a tourist attraction and remaining locally relevant to the sisters' legacy even today. Illustrations of the mansion as corporate headquarters were featured in documents promoting the Sutherland hair and beauty products, the home a symbol of the corporation's homespun integrity and longevity. They traveled the world, yet always returned to the odd homestead established by their grandfather nearly ninety years before the first Sutherland sister's birth. The sisters had built the mansion so they could stay together. In the end, it was all they had left.

A so-called Sutherland Curse dogged the hair artists throughout their lives. Their mother died in 1867, when the youngest sisters were only six and three. Their father had children with at least one other woman while he was still married. The sisters and twenty other noted celebrities were nearly killed in a brutal New Orleans hotel fire. People tried to cut and steal the sisters' hair. Deadly love triangles, infighting, mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse, poisonous marriages, early death and notoriously poor investments­the stuff of story that makes today's tabloids fly from the shelves­plagued the sisters and altered the family dynamic forever. They celebrated life with the same high energy that they celebrated death. From spending days singing to deceased relatives and publishing long obituaries for their pets, to throwing lavish yet violent parties at their Cambria mansion­their eccentricities attracted the town talk. While they maintained a religious façade, local, common people wondered… Were they sinning? Conjuring the dead? Enjoying forbidden love? Sharing husbands? Practicing spiritualism, witchcraft and voodoo? Corrupting the young? Engaging in vanity? Communicating with demons?

Likely fearing marriage contracts that would instantly give their wealth to men, four of the seven sisters never married. A few of the sisters ignored the Methodist and Episcopalian teachings that had been in their family for generations. They sought independence, fame and wealth while promoting their look and selling beauty formulas at a time when women were supposed to quietly serve husbands, bear children, and attend church. Apparently, only one sister had children, the only heirs of the Fletcher Sutherland family.

Businesswomen, other than actresses and the wives of Presidents, were uncommon in the 1880s. Society's standards ruled women's lives as strictly as corsets confined their bodies. As historian Paula Jean Darnell noted in Victorian to Vamp, "In the nineteenth century, women had been expected to concern themselves only with domestic matters." Feminine studies expert Lana Thompson explained that women of the period "made a conscious effort to avoid sunlight or the exertion that might put a blush on the cheeks. The cult of pure womanhood demanded a frail, indoor woman, weighed down by petticoats and layered yards of ornate fabric." Author Gail Collins asserted that women "had far less opportunity to make money. Only a few women had careers that were lucrative as well as useful."

Historian Vern Bullough said it was widely believed that, "If a woman was not regularly pregnant, she would suffer from hysteria, a catch-all category for somatic symptoms stimulating almost any kind of physical disease or mental condition." When a husband was unhappy with his wife, he could legally have her institutionalized under the premise of any claim he might invent.

Yet, as women sought independence from established cultural, social, philosophical, religious, and even medical beliefs at the turn of the century, the Sutherlands became bold examples of the changes that would later grip the nation. In the late 1890s, Harpers Bazar sang the praises of this new breed of woman, the one shying from wedlock in favor of a career: "Not that marriage is to be depreciated or postponed to mean prudence. It is only marriage as an escape from labor, marriage as a selfless, loveless convenience, marriage as a dishonest bargain, that is unlovely. And by honorable toil women may avoid that dishonorable toil."

Awash in fascinating legend and nearly irrefutable advertising hyperbole, the Sutherland attraction was a strong one for the day; there were not just one or two independent women of talent and invention in this family. The fact that there were seven Sutherland sisters played heavily into their performance promotional and product advertising; the number seven saturated in significance, importance and myth to invite wonder at the Sutherland phenomenon. They were seven living wonders, akin to the lucky number, the seven stars of the Pleiades, the biblical week, the symbol of perfection, leisure and rest, the seven trumpets, seven churches, seven symbols of abundance and dangerous feminine power. As a poet once said, it was their excess that bred their success.

Encased in the "S" shaped Victorian corset, bodice, dresses that covered every inch of flesh, and gloves a size too small, the Sutherland sisters were rare indeed. As celebrity divas, entertainers and entrepreneurs, they helped set the stage for the feminine business revolution that would take hold of the nation as their careers were disintegrating. Betrothed or not, the sisters' main focus was the personal marketing and sales of their products. Each sister inherited Fletcher Sutherland's gift of blarney, which, in the days of patent medicine, was a sure way to get rich quick.

 

Brandon M. Stickney has written biographies of the Seven Sutherland Sisters, "Ossified Man" Jonathan Bass, philosopher Paul Kurtz, and American terrorist Timothy McVeigh. Stickney has appeared numerous times on A&E Biography, the History Channel, and National Public Radio. His work has appeared in USA Today, The Buffalo News, and the Ontario Review.


 

Sutherland Family

of

SEVEN SISTERS.

HAIR 7 FEET LONG and 4 INCHES THICK.

 

Above Sutherland Families Ad Card

SARAH

 

 

VICTORIA

 


ISABELLA

 

 

GRACE

 

 

NAOMI

 

 

DORA

 

 

MARY

TESTIMONIAL

MEDFORD, MASS., Dec. 26, 1885

Seven Sutherland Sisters,

    Dear Ladies:

I wish to state to the public the benefit derived by my mother from the use of the “7 Sutherland Sisters’ Hair Grower.”

My Mother at the age of seven had the scarlet fever, from which she last all her Hair, and upon getting wed. no hair came on the right half of her head, and at the age of 52 she was completely bald; two years ago. Upon seeing the 7 Sutherland Sisters, and hearing of their Hair Grower, my mother purchased a bottle of the Compound, thinking it would do her no good, as her Hair had been gone so long.

 

But to-day I am happy to state that my mother has an elegant head of Hair, measuring about five inches.  Hoping this recommendation will benefit you as your Hair Grower benefited my Mother.

I remain your respectfully,

Chas. K. Atwood.

H. BAILEY Manager.

 

7 SUTHERLAND SISTERS’ HAIR-GROWER

Will Grow Hair on BALD HEADS; Will stop Hair falling out,

7 Sutherland Sisters’ Hair and Scalp Cleaner

FOR THE ABSOLUTE CURE OF DANDRUFF.

And are living proofs of its merits

For Sale by 7 Sutherland Sisters and all Druggists.


PREPARED BY THE 7 SUTHERLAND SISTERS, LOCKPORT, N.Y.

New York City Office 20 West 12th Street


CINCINNATI, O., March 2d 1884.

Having made a Chemical analysis of the Hair-Grower prepared by the Seven Long-haired Sisters, I hereby certify that I found it free from all injurious substances, being entirely composed of Vegetable Preparations. It is beyond question the best preparation for the Hair ever made-and

I cheerfully Indorse it.     B. BUFF, M.D. Chemist.

 

Late Vice-President Louisiana College of Pharmacy & Medicine.

The Genuine bears the 7 Sutherland Sisters Photographs in qroupe,

On every bottle or box.

 


Photographs

New Dime Museum Broadside

Information Card

Sutherland Group

Sara

Victoria

Isabella

Grace

Naomi

Dora

Mary

Hair Grower

7 Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower Bottle

Hair Fertilizer Box

Hair and Scalp Ad

Sutherland Group

Sutherland Families Ad Card & Readable Information

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