Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora and Mary: the seven Sutherland sisters were born in quick succession between 1846 and 1865. They were raised in a small log cabin in Niagara County, New York State. Education was a luxury, shoes were worn only on Sundays, the girls’ dresses were sewn from burlap and their mother concocted a homemade dressing for their hair, the smell of which made them unpopular at school. It might have been Mrs Sutherland’s potion, or maybe it came naturally, but by the time they were teenagers, the sisters had transformed into dark-haired Lady Godivas, with 37 feet of hair among them.
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.
With fans fascinated by their hair, which reached a collective length of over 37 feet, Fletcher Sutherland went on to create a patent medicine, “The Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower”, which was mostly witch hazel and bay rum, along with traces of hydrochloric acid, salt, and magnesium. The tonic quickly became a best seller, and the line of Sutherland Sisters hair products expanded to include a scalp cleanser, brushes and combs, and “Hair Colorators.” In addition to wholesaling their products to retail stores, they also made public appearances at retail outlets, and maintained several outlets of their own — “parlors” where customers could consult with a salesperson and make purchases — including one in New York City. When Naomi died in 1893, the Sutherlands auditioned for a replacement, and hired Anna Louise Roberts to join their act. Roberts made headlines in 1927 when she was over 60 and her husband and she became destitute as the result of a house fire.
The Sutherlands resided in a mansion they built in Warrens Corners, New York, which burned down in 1938. Even though hairstyles changed over time, and the short hair of the Flappers became fashionable in the 1920s, the Seven Sutherland Sisters hair care products were successful for years after their singing act ended; print ads for them appeared in newspapers until the mid-1920s.
Published accounts indicate that the sisters did not save or invest wisely, and some of them later became destitute. When the last living sister, Grace, died in 1946 at age 92, she was buried in an unmarked grave.
The children of Fletcher and Mary Sutherland included: