Spoiler warning: you’ll never look at a historical film the same way again.
Living historians look for obvious markers that authenticity matters in film productions. For women, the most obvious marker is the actresses’ hair. One film in particular comes to mind. All the actresses have appropriate hairstyles, except the main character, who is a grown young woman wearing her hair down to her shoulders and continually falling in her face. There are inaccuracies of behavior aplenty, but it’s the hair that makes me cringe. Think of this post as a primer for Hollywood, if you will.
Women in the 1850s and 1860s wore their hair short, long and longer. Long hair — below the shoulders — was most common. If women wore their hair short, there was a story behind it.
Women were expected to conform, not make spectacles of themselves by adopting an appearance that drew attention, especially in the South. Before you individualist readers rise up in arms, please take into account that many, if not most, women liked it that way. They preferred to stay in the background and did not wish to be subject to public comment. The public sphere belonged to men.
This attitude was so pronounced that men could come to blows over what they considered the inappropriate — and dishonorable — use of a woman’s name in conversation or in the newspaper. Women may have had retiring attitudes because of the paternalistic social conditioning to which they were subjected, but why doesn’t matter so much as the fact that most women preferred to adhere to popular forms of dress and appearance. Being different was not admired, and most women wanted to have long hair.
Therefore, a woman with short hair drew attention to herself, and the reason her hair was short was what made the style socially acceptable or not.
Socially Acceptable Reasons for Short Hair
The story of the lovely woman with short hair in the image below is told on her face. She had small pox, and it is likely her hair was cut while she was ill.
There were many medical reasons for women having short hair. Some physicians recommended cutting the hair short as a means of cooling the body and speeding healing.
Doctors advised cutting the hair in cases of severe inflammatory diseases in which it was “desirable to keep the head cool.” In such cases, it was suggested that shaving it off was better than merely cutting it, and though women, particularly, sometimes objected to that procedure, they were told it would promote the growth of new hair to remove all of the old.
Too, there were some medical conditions that were hard to treat if the hair was long, such as ringworm and lice.
As a practical measure, having short hair made caring for invalids easier in a day in which there was no central heat and air, hair dryers, indoor showers or shampoo stations. My mother, a nurse, told about the challenges of keeping the long hair of a well person smelling fresh in the days of no air conditioning. We won’t go into the unpleasantness of an invalid or sick person’s hair in the mid-19th century summer heat in the South.
And then there was the short-lived fad of young women (teenagers) bobbing their hair as a show of patriotism early in the War Between the States. There certainly is evidence that young women wanted to do something tangible for their country. More than one confided to her diary that she wished she were a man so she could do something meaningful. Many pinned cockades to their clothing. Others wore homespun dresses before it was a necessity to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice in support of the Confederacy. There ever were some who formed their own military units and drilled as a means of supporting the war effort.
Cropping their hair may have been what these teenage girls said it was — an obvious, outward sign of inward conviction — and a way to vent frustration over not being able to enlist in Confederate service. But patriotic zeal did not make short hair commonplace in the South.
Controversial Reasons for Short Hair
In the North, where women had begun seeking equal rights with men, feminists attacked restrictive clothing and social conventions that limited the ability of women to live and work as men did. These reformers sometimes cut their hair short and even adopted male clothing to draw attention to their cause and indulge in the rights they wanted.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, arrived at the Women’s Temperance Convention in Rochester, New York, on April 20, 1852, with her hair cut short. “…But in that she is not singular at home – many of our ladies of the first respectability, both married and unmarried, have taken a notion to enjoy the luxury of short hair. And this is not confined to the wearers of the short dress, as some may suppose – the majority of those thus shorn still adhering to the draggling skirts,” wrote Amelia Bloomer.
Their short hair was thought eccentric, even in the North.
Practical Reasons for Shorter Hair
Southern women found as the war progressed that gender-related definitions sometimes had to give way to practicality. As they increasingly took on the responsibilities normally assumed by men, these women found there was no time for maintaining longer hair. The wives of farmers found that jobs such as plowing the fields and cleaning out wells left them no energy for nonessential activities.Bread-winning took precedence over spending forty-five minutes to an hour doing one’s hair.
The photographic record does not show numbers of women adopting chin-length bobs as their roles changed. It might merely have been that women wore their hair shorter than they had previously but not drastically shorter, one of many compromises men and women had to make to survive during the war.
Poverty also could be a reason a woman wore her hair short. As Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has famously documented, poor women sometimes sold their hair to make money. Wig makers did a brisk business among elderly men and women and others who had little hair.
Photographic Evidence in Question
Photographs tell us a lot, but you can’t believe everything you see. Women sometimes used what my grandmother called “switches” (braids made of human hair) or curls sewn to combs. It can be hard to tell by looking at photographs whether the mounds of tresses seen on the women were theirs or not.
Unquestionably, the prevailing hair style for women in the 19th century was hair parted down the middle and worn long. (Males wore theirs parted on the side, which is one way to tell the sex of small children in period photographs.)
Great length could be a significant source of pride. Diarist Sarah Morgan admitted being vain about her hair. “The net I had gathered my hair in, fell in my descent, and my hair swept down halfway between my knee and ankle in one stream,” she wrote. Recording her injury in a fall from a carriage, Sarah quotes a soldier as saying her hair swept the ground.
Having long hair meant time before the looking glass. My grandmother, Martha “Mattie” Edna (Cone) Nichols Atchley, born less than ten years after the end of the war, emphasized that women did not do their hair before cooking breakfast because it would make the men in the family late getting to their work.
In a letter to Mary Boykin Chestnut, Mrs. Jefferson Davis recounts the daily outlay of time required for her toilette: “‘It takes me at best an hour to do my hair and dress, and I could not ask them to wait.’” Mrs. Davis likely had the help of her servant dressing her hair. If she had done it herself, it would’ve taken longer.
How long was hair that was too long? There is a photograph of the sister of Confederate hero Sam Davis at the Sam Davis home in Smyrna, Tennessee, that shows her hair streaming down her back and extending several feet behind her on the floor. It was beautiful, but I can only imagine the headaches such hair would cause. How long must it have taken to dry it when it was washed? Yet, somebody was proud enough of that hair to have had the young woman’s photograph made like that.
American women did not enjoy the benefits of short hair en mass until the 1920s, when flappers led the way and bobbed their hair.
In the 1960s, my mother recalled when my grandmother at last abandoned her long hair. “It was the first time she’d ever cut it short. [My younger brother] and I just cried and cried when we saw it.” She laughed. “Now, wasn’t that silly?”
For more hairstyles from 1850 to 1870, see these examples. Do you have a favorite?
Amelia Bloomer. The Lily, June 1852, Vol. IV, No. 6, p. 55, as quoted in The Radical Women’s Press of the 1850s, Vol. II. Cherise Kramarae and Ann Russo, ed. (New York and London: Roudedge, 2010) p 158.
Sarah Morgan. Charles East, ed. Sarah Morgan: the Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991) p. 59, 285.
- Vann Woodward, Sally Bland Metts, Barbara G.Carpenter. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981) p. 667.
A Dispensary Surgeon. The Family Doctor. (London: Houlston and Wright, 1858) p 158.