The Kardashian/Jenner Empire has taken over our celebrity culture. There is roughly no one in the United States who wouldn’t know who Kourtney, Kendall, Kylie, Khloe, and Kim are, like it or not. Yet they were not the first American celebrity family. Long before them there was another group of sisters who used their feminine assets to get famous, only in this case it was long luscious locks rather than big rear ends.
Collector Weekly untangles the tale of Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora, and Mary Sutherland who came from painfully humble beginnings. Barely surviving on their family’s turkey farm in Cambria, NY, the girls were kept barefoot as they herded turkeys. But while they struggled to make ends meet, their mother, Mary Sunderland, went to great lengths (pun intended) in order to keep her girls hair long and strong. She would slather on horrible smelling ointment that may or may not have kept their locks healthy but definitely made the girls the outcasts of their school.
When their mother passed away, their father became a sort of two-bit hustler who used his children to pursue his dreams of fame by forcing the children to learn music and parading them to churches, fairs, and anywhere else they might be seen. While they were talented, it was their hair that really garnered people’s attention.
The Victorian Era had a fascination with long hair. It was seen as the ultimate sign of femininity and was even thought to hold mystical properties, largely because disease and new medicines were causing a frightening amount of baldness in women and men. So the idea of these seven sisters having 37 feet of hair between them was a sight to behold.
The sisters eventually joined the circus circuit, with W.W. Coles Colossal Shows in 1882 and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth 1884. Their divine/goddess image kept them from inheriting the stigma of being seen as average "circus folk" and their father decided to cash in on their success by creating bottles of a hair fertilizer that sold for $1-1.25 a bottle.
At the peak of their success, the sisters had earned around 3 million dollars from their hair products. When their father died, the sisters took the family business into their own hands. Unfortunately, overspending and mismanaging eventually left the sisters broke and in the 1910s, the flapper’s short bob put the final axe on the remaining sister’s financial situation. Once able to get $25 dollars for a single strand of hair, the last surviving Sutherland sister, Grace, died in 1946 and was buried at an unmarked grave.
Image c/o: Sideshow Work, Peachridge GlassPrincess Weekes is a part-time bookseller and a full-time writer with a Master’s in English from Brooklyn College. A former intern at BUST magazine, she has since written articles for The Mary Sue, BUST and maintains her own video channel under the name Melina Pendulum, discussing the intersection of pop culture, feminism and race. She is currently working on a fantasy novel about black witches during the Jim Crow era, while attempting to purchase every liquid lipstick the world has to offer.