“If Gerty and Millie don’t get back soon, they aren’t going to make curfew.” I said to my roommate Ruth.
“I’m worried too.” Ruth answered.
We were sitting on my bed, already in our night gowns. Ruth was brushing my chestnut hair with my boar bristle brush. We always brushed and braided each others hair each night. In the morning we helped each other put it up.
“The movie they went to should have ended an hour ago.” Ruth was thinking out loud. “The cinema is only a 15 minute walk from here. Do you think they stopped for an ice cream soda?”
“Even if they did, they should have been back a half an hour ago.” I observed. “If they miss curfew Miss Thompson will have them up before the disciplinary committee.”
Just then we heard swift footsteps coming down the hall. Whoever it was was almost running. Gerty and Millie burst through the door and closed it behind them. They were out of breath and still wearing their hats and coats.
“You almost missed curfew. Where did you go after the cinema?” I asked.
“We didn’t go to the movie, Elli.” Millie got out as she tried to catch her breath. “It took us so long, because we had to avoid Miss Thompson on our way into the dormitory.”
“I thought you were excited to see that Rudolph Valentino film, Beyond the Rocks?” Ruth asked them.
“I wanted to go, but Gerty had something else in mind.” Millie sounded miffed. “Show them Gerty.”
We all looked at Gerty, who by then had caught her breath. I noticed that her hat was pulled down more than usual. She slowly took off her tam. As she did, short loose blonde hair fell forward to brush along her jaw.
“Jeepers!” Ruth gasped. “You bobbed your hair.”
“If Miss Thompson sees that, you’ll get expelled!” I said, as I felt my eyes go as big as saucers. “You can’t just keep avoiding her, or wear your hat constantly.”
“I kept my hair.” Gerty said, taking a bag from Millie. She opened it up showing us the long switch of blonde hair. “I’ll fashion a hair piece from it with a couple of combs and Miss Thompson will never know.”
Right then, we heard the tapping of Miss Thompson’s shoes coming down the hall.
“Hurry, hide your hair!” Ruth hissed at Gerty.
Millie took the bag from Gerty and put it into the open wardrobe, while Gerty jumped into her bed fully dressed still and pulled the quilt up covering her head to the ears, so the cut ends of her hair were hidden and all that was visible was the top of her head. Millie quickly took off her cloche and overcoat then carelessly tossed everything into the the wardrobe. She then sat at the desk and opened a book to make it look like she’d been studying.
Millie and Gerty barely made it before the knock on the door.
“Come in.” Ruth said as calmly as she could.
“Good evening ladies.” Miss Thompson greeted us stiffly. “I didn’t see Mildred and Gertrude come in. Glad to see you made it before curfew, Mildred. Where is Gertrude?”
“She found the movie very exciting.” Millie answered. “She went straight to bed as soon as we got back.”
“Ugh-muph” Gerty mumbled from under her quilt.
“Goodnight then, Gertrude, Mildred, Ruth, Eleanor.” Miss Thompson sounded satisfied as she nodded to each of us.
Gerty continued to hide under her quilt as Miss Thompson left the room and walked down the hallway. When we couldn’t hear retreating footsteps anymore, Gerty pushed the covers back and sat up.
“Whoow!” Gerty let out. “That was close. I better get to work on making that hairpiece.”
Gerty climbed out of the bed and took off her coat. She went over to the wardrobe and hung it up, then took out the bag with her hair in it. She sat down and pulled out her sewing kit and a couple of her hair combs. She started braiding the switch of hair.
“I hope you don’t get caught.” Ruth said to Gerty as she started braiding my long hair. “Your hair really is the cat’s pajamas.”
Gerty was making good progress on her hairpiece, and Ruth had finished braiding my hair, and I’d started brushing her auburn hair, when we heard a tap at our door. We all held our breaths for a moment.
“It’s Louise and I.” Betty’s voice called through the door.
“Come in.” I called back as we all let out a sigh of relief.
“How was the movie?” Betty asked as she came in. Then she looked at Gerty and gasped.
“Gerty! Your hair!” Louise squealed. “I can’t believe you bobbed it.”
“Oh Gerty,” Betty gushed. “It’s absolutely the bee’s knees.”
“Thank you.” Gerty blushed under the attention.
“Louise, go tell Sarah, and Henrietta to come in here.” Betty took out her flask. “Ruth, get the glasses.”
Betty always had a steady supply of whisky. Betty’s father was the chief of police in the city we came from, which you would not think would lead to access to whiskey, yet it seemed to. There were plenty of rumors about the details, but nobody ever said anything to Betty.
We enjoyed the next hour sipping whiskey and chatting, while Gerty finished making her hair into a believable hairpiece. Louise told us she’d had bobbed hair a couple of years ago, and she had to grow it out before she was accepted to normal school. Which explained why hers seemed different when it was down. She said she and her sister cut each others hair after seeing a film with Irene Castle. She was very doubtful that Gerty was going to get away with it, but said she hoped she was wrong. Then everyone went to bed, so we wouldn’t be too exhausted for church in the morning.
It was a week later that Millie came running into our room while Ruth and I were getting ready. Ruth had already helped me put my hair up, and I was almost finished with hers. I was just adding a few more hairpins to make sure it was secure.
“Miss Thompson is sending Gerty to the disciplinary committee!” Millie shouted as she came in. “When Gerty was leaving the wash room, her hair came loose and Miss Thompson noticed she’d cut it.”
“What are they going to do?” I asked.
“Miss Thompson said they were going to expel her!”
“What can we do?” Ruth asked.
“I’m going to get Betty.” I said.
If any of us could fix this it was Betty. I scurried across the hall to find her. I knocked on the door, and Louise answered it. She was dressed for the day, her hair pinned up tightly in the back so it almost looked like it was a fashionable bob. So similar to the bob that was about to get Gerty expelled.
“I need to talk to Betty,” I blurted out. “Gerty is going to be expelled.”
“What happened?” Betty came to the door. Her dark hair still hung loose behind her, and she was just in her slip.
“Miss Thompson found out about her hair.” I explained.
After a few moments thinking while she hastily put on her dress, Betty seemed to have a plan. “Louise, go get Sarah and Harriet. Take them to Ellie and Gerty’s room. Ellie, go tell Bernice and anyone else with her to come. I’ll go downstairs and get everyone else.”
When I got back to my room with Bernice and a few other girls, it was a bit crowded. Gerty was back and sitting on the bed being comforted by Millie. When Betty arrived with several more girls, they couldn’t all fit inside so some stood out in the hall as Betty pushed her way inside and climbed up onto the small step stool we used to get to the things we stored on top of our wardrobes.
“The only way to keep Gerty from being expelled is if we all commit to solidarity.” Betty spoke strongly. “They can’t expel us all. There are only 5 men in our class, that is not enough to make up a graduating class. They are expected to provide a certain number of new teachers each year. If we all bob our hair, they won’t be able to expel Gerty.”
Murmurs went through the group. Not everyone was as sure that we might not just all get expelled. Though there was a general feeling that if Betty was taking part, they certainly couldn’t expel her, due to her family’s political connections. Some were worried about how their parents would react. Of course many of the girls had wanted to bob their hair, and had only not done it because of the rules.
“What if they try to claim some of us can stay because our hair is easier to put up than others?” Mary from down stairs brought up.
“I’ll have mine bobbed so short there will be no hiding it.” Betty announced. “They won’t dare expel just me.”
Betty was putting a lot of faith in her father’s political influence.
I wasn’t sure that I would have wanted to bob my hair even if it hadn’t been against the rules. I understood why so many girls wanted to. It was such a modern thing, daring and fashionable. Nevermind so hygienic and simple. It was also terrifying. I had to do this for Gerty though, so reluctantly I agreed. Everyone agreed, some reluctantly like me, others enthusiastically.
Once we had all agreed to the plan, we spent a few minutes working out the details. If we all went to the same barbershop Gerty had, there was no chance we would make it back to campus in time, so we agreed to split up. There were three barbershops in town, so we would go in six groups. There were two groups for each shop, one in the morning and one after lunch. Bernice would go with several of the girls to the big one on Main Street. Sarah, Harriet, and a few other girls would go to the smaller one over on Franklin Avenue. That left Ruth, Millie, Betty, Louise and I going to the one down the lane from the cinema. The rest of the girls would go later after lunch time.
Ruth, Millie and I got our hats and coats, then went across the hall so Betty and Louise could get their hats and coats from their room. When we got there, Betty spent just a minute putting her hair up carelessly before jamming her hat over it.
We headed out into the brisk morning air, to walk to the barbershop. Just past the cinema marquee we spotted it. The shop had a fancy new electric lighted spinning pole with lots of chrome, not just a painted wooden one. It was thoroughly modern.
A young gentleman was leaving the shop as we reached the door. He was startled for a moment, before he remembered his manners and held the door for us and tipped his hat. Betty went in first, the rest of us following her.
Inside, there were three barbers working. Along the wall opposite the barbers was a row of five waiting chairs. There were a couple of men waiting, who hopped up to offer us their seats. As we sat, my heart kept beating fast, it wasn’t slowing even though we were done walking. I realized it was mostly nerves, not the exertion.
Ruth sat next to me. She had taken off her gloves and had them tightly clutched in one hand. With her other hand, she reached out for mine. We sat quietly as she gripped my hand tightly. I looked over at her, as we waited. I looked at her auburn hair, just peeking out under her cloche. She preferred to call it auburn, though many called it red.
The city Betty, Ruth and I, oh, and Patrick who was one of the few men at our school, grew up in had had a mostly Irish descendent population. There Ruth’s bright hair was appreciated, here just a few too many miles to travel everyday from that city, it was different. Every sunday there were Klansmen outside when we went to mass. Here, she was shy about how her hair made her stand out. I wondered if she thought having it bobbed was going to make it more or less obvious.
Suddenly one of the barbers was free, and I was drawn away from thinking about Ruth’s auburn hair. I wasn’t sure who would go next. Would it be Betty since she was the first of us through the door? Did the ladies first rule even apply here in this shop that women had only been coming to for a few years, or were the men who had been waiting before us next?
Betty seemed not to be unsure or nervous at all, and just got up and slipped out of her over coat. Placing it in her chair then pulled out the hat pin holding her cloche in place. Her shiny black hair was revealed as she took off her hat and placed in on top of her coat. Betty’s pale skin and shocking blue eye’s were a startling contrast to her dark hair.
Betty walked confidently over to the chair. She took the barber’s offered hand as she stepped onto the foot rest of the chair and seated herself. She looked so small in the large chair, which was a contradiction to her personality. When the barber draped the striped cloth over her, she disappeared under it.
The barber started to let Betty’s hair down. It didn’t take long, since Betty had been in such a rush when she put it up. The barber handed her the two combs and 3 hair pins she’d used. Her smooth hair hung behind her.
“How do you want me to cut it?” The barber asked.
Confident as Betty was about doing it, she seemed at a loss for words. Though I was sure she didn’t mind the idea of bobbing her hair, since she had never done it before I don’t think she knew exactly how to explain what she was thinking.
“Mine needs to be the shortest.” Betty starts tentatively. “Shorter than Miss Benedict’s hair. I don’t know if you remember her, you bobbed her hair last week?”
“Miss,” The barber said smiling. “We bobbed the hair of nearly half a dozen young ladies here last week. I’m afraid I didn’t get all their names.”
“I guess make it a weebit shorter than the shortest one you did last week.” Betty said. “Please.”
“Do you want to keep the hair, miss?” The barber asked her.
After that, the barber didn’t hesitate and began combing Betty’s dark hair. He didn’t spend long, just smoothed out the top, before he raised the shiny silver scissors up to her hair. He placed his comb against her head, just below her ear and started cutting off the hair beneath the comb. My stomach felt like it was jumping into my throat as I watched most of Betty’s hair falling to the floor.
Right around then, one of the other barbers finished with the shave he was giving to the man in his chair and let him up. The man stepped from the chair. The barber removed the headrest and dusted off his chair.
“Who’s next?” The free barber asked as he stood next to his chair.
After a moment of everyone looking around, Louise got up, took off her coat and hat, then walked over to the open chair. She stepped up onto the footrest and sat down. The barber threw the billowing cloth over her dress. The barber released her soft brown hair, so it fell about her shoulders. It only fell just below her shoulders though, ending in a fairly straight line, not the natural gradual finish like most of our hair.
“I’d like it right about here please.” Louise said, holding her hand to just below her chin.
Louise’s barber started slicing off several inches of her hair, not bothering to ask her if she wanted to keep it. Though, since her hair had been previously bobbed, she probably couldn’t have made a hairpiece with it if she wanted to.
It made me wonder if I wanted to keep mine. My parents wouldn’t mind, so I had no need to hide it from them.
The barber, who was working on Betty, had cut off the bulk of Betty’s hair and was snipping away at the back of her head. The long locks had fallen to the floor, but the shorter snippings stayed on the cloth. The dark hair lay like a thick carpet on her shoulders.
Louise was finished fairly quickly. Her hair hung loose about her neck as the barber took the cloth off her. She preened in the mirror for a moment with a broad smile. After Louise paid, she came to sit back down, putting her hat back on. The cut ends of her hair stuck out the bottom in a very fetching manor. He shook out his cloth and dusted off his chair, while the shoe shine boy swept up Louise’s hair.
“Next” the barber called out.
Millie stood up and took off her hat and coat and walked over to the chair stiffly.
“Same as Miss Parker, but I need to keep the hair.” Millie said to the barber as he draped the cloth over her. “Pastor Jones will be scandalized if he finds out I’ve cut it.”
The barber spent longer combing out Millie’s hair than he had on Louise’s, then gathered it all in his hand. Millie was holding a length of ribbon in her lap. He cut off all her hair as a bundle, and carefully handed it to her. The barber waited while Millie carefully tied the bundle with the ribbon she’d brought. He then started trimming the bottom.
I looked back to Betty. The barber had her head tilted down and was running his comb up along the bottom back of her head with his scissors snapping closed rapidly against the comb. Betty’s hair was obviously going to be quite a bit shorter than Louise’s was.
The barber was soon using some gadget at the very bottom of Betty’s head, where it met her neck. The rectangular head of the gadget flickered as he squeezed its chrome handles closed over and over. When it moved away, Betty’s hair had been cut to the root.
The barber tilted Betty’s head back up and combed some of her hair down in front of her face. He then started snipping it off across her forehead. There was absolutely no way Betty could hide that her hair had been cut.
“Miss O’Sullivan, what in the world are you doing?” I looked to the door to see who had spoken; it was John Taylor smiling as he walked in. Mr. Taylor was the young man earnestly courting Betty.
“What does it look like I’m doing Mr. Taylor?” Betty replied.
“Getting expelled from school and convincing my family that you are indeed a flapper. They’ve been back and forth on that point till now.” John kept his tone rather neutral.
“We’ll have to see about the expulsion.” Betty responded coyly. “Do you mind your family thinking I’m a flapper?”
“Not if you don’t.” John smiled at her as he said it. “And I suppose if you get yourself expelled, it will give you more time to go on picnics with me.”
The other barber was done with Millie right about then and calling next. It was down to Ruth and me. Ruth’s hand was shaking as she stood up to walk over to the chair. Her hat off now making the color obvious to the whole shop. As Ruth’s barber helped her into the chair and threw the cloth over her dress, Betty’s barber was dusting her off with a brush. As Betty’s barber removed the cloth covering Betty, Ruth’s barber let down Ruth’s long red hair. As Betty settles up with her barber, Ruth’s barber started combing her hair.
Then it was my turn, and I felt a slight case of what my mother would have referred to as the vapors coming on, and reminded myself I am a modern gal who does not give in to such silliness. I took a deep breath and felt steady. My mother never could have taken a deep breath to steady herself, the corset she wore prevented it. She’d tried giving it up as it became unfashionable, but felt she needed the back support too much. I got up and walked to the chair in a reasonably calm manner. I felt small as I seated myself in the large chair.
I watched in the mirror as the Barber swung the billowing cloth over me, the rustling sound of fabric temporarily drowning out the other sounds. The cloth reminded me of pillow ticking as it was draped over me, then covered me with a weight like a blanket. The tightness around my neck reminding me of the dresses that had been in fashion a decade ago when I was still a child.
I looked to Ruth as she sat next to me. I watched as the first long lock fell loose to the floor. Then to my surprise, a tear ran down Ruth’s cheek. She was crying over the lose of hair she so often tried to hide anyway.
All sound had receded into the background, as I sat there feeling as though I were under water. I could vaguely hear Betty and John chatting happily with an occasional giggle from Betty. I was so caught up in watching Ruth silently weep as her hair was cut away. I hardly felt my own hair being let down.
“Miss…. Miss?” I realized my barber was trying to get my attention. “How do you want it?”
I sighed, then I’m not fully sure what came over me, but the words just came out of my mouth. “Just like Miss Sullivan’s please.”
And that was that. I watched in the mirror as the barber raised his scissors to my chestnut hair. Fear shot through me at that moment, I had never before had my hair cut. I’d heard it said that it didn’t hurt, and no one was acting like it did, but I wondered if I would feel it. After all, sometimes brushing out tangles hurt.
What had I been thinking when I had agreed to go along with this? I asked myself. Maybe it had been thinking about my mother still stuck in her corset that motivated me to go as daringly short as Betty had. I didn’t want to be stuck in the past. I wanted to embrace the future. The future where us gals were going to vote in elections, the future where we wouldn’t be hobbled by restrictive clothing that made it hard to breath, the future where we could cut off our unsanitary uncomfortable long hair as we fancied just as men and boys did, not only if we had a high fever or some similar affliction.
Whatever it was that had motivated me to ask for it as short as Betty’s, as it actually happened I was filled with regrets. No matter how much short hair had become the fashion, or how much the practicality of it appealed to me, it was hard to forget the years growing up as a little girl hearing “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory,” or how anguished my mother was years ago when two of my sisters had scarlet fever and the doctor ordered their hair shorn. It had taken so long to grow back after they recovered.
I reminded myself that if I didn’t cut my hair, Gerty was going to be expelled. Since I had to cut it anyway, might as well go very short like Betty’s. As Nanny had always said “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
The sound of the slicing filled my ears, shlick, shlick, shlick, and hair fell to the floor. It was true, that it didn’t hurt. It was also heartbreaking watching the first long lock fall away in the mirror. With each snip weight that I had hardly been aware of was released, leaving me feeling a bit light headed.
The comb provided a straight edge that the barber cut against. It rested against the bottom of my ear as he snipped off all the hair beneath it. He worked around my head, the cascading tresses disappearing from my view as they fell to the floor.
I soon had no hair hanging below my ears, and could feel the comb lifting my hair up along the back of my head as my ears were filled with the rhythmic snapping of the scissors. The comb scraping up my scalp felt strangely different as it didn’t pull through tangles. My shoulders were getting covered in a similar carpet of hair as Betty’s shoulders had been. Just lighter both in color and in texture.
Then, I felt the cold metal rectangle of the gadget against my neck, and heard the squeak of the spring and it opened and closed. This did hurt slightly, as the hair was pulled by it every second or third squeak, less than combing out a serious tangle often did though.
I looked down at my lap where some of my hair had fallen. The rich color prized by everyone Contrasted against the simple striped cloth. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Ruth’s bright hair being swept up. I realized I wouldn’t be braiding it for her tonight, which made me suddenly feel much more heart broken than I had watching my own hair fall.
Then the front of my hair was combed down over my eyes obscuring my vision. The cold point of the scissors came in under the hair to brush against my forehead. Soon that curtain of hair fell away though as I felt the cold blades work across my forehead. The line formed by the bangs showed off my soft hazel eyes.
The reflection I saw staring back at me through the looking glass was barely recognizable, yet felt like me still. Though my hair was the same length as Betty’s it wasn’t as sleek. It had a slight wave to it giving it a very different look from Betty’s. It was a softer more delicate look. I think it actually suited my personality better than the sleeker look would have. The sleek look fit Betty’s boldness, but I was a quieter person. I really was still me, just a more modern me.
As I put on my hat and coat John Taylor offered to take all five of us to the drug store up the street to get sodas. He assured us that it was no trouble and that he could simply return later to get his own haircut, when we all politely said we didn’t want to disrupt his plans. At the soda fountain, Ruth snuggled against me as we watched John and Betty happily flirting. The cut ends of her auburn hair curling slightly where they peeked out under her hat, my own hair was completely covered by my hat.
We made it back to campus well before the disciplinary committee was scheduled to meet about Gerty’s infraction. When the time for the meeting came, every girl in the school showed up to to support Gerty, all of us with our hair bobbed. The committee had no choice but to let Gerty off with a warning, and I learned a lesson I kept close to my heart for the rest of my teaching career, a school is nothing without students.
That night when we went to bed, Ruth and I were a bit at loose ends. Braiding eachothers hair each night was such a part of our routine that not doing it felt odd and disruptive.
I had laid awake in bed for at least a half hour listening to Millie and Gerty breathing softly in there sleep when Ruth spoke, “Are you still awake?”
“Yes, I can’t fall asleep.”
“Want me to sleep in your bed?” I suspected Ruth was asking because she wanted to sleep in my bed.
“Yes.” I wasn’t just saying it for Ruth though, I did want it too.
Ruth slipped under my covers. Her warm body pressed against my belly and her cold feet intertwined with my warmer feet. I put my arm around her, her short hairs tickling my nose. I let out a contented sigh.
“Do you think you’ll ever have a fellow like Betty has John?” Ruth whispered.
“I don’t know.” It’s funny, I really didn’t. My feelings on the subject were rather confused.
“Do you want to become a nun?”
“No. Do you?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe when we graduate we can just get a house together and be a pair of old maids.” Ruth tentatively whispered in my ear.
I didn’t know why, but the idea filled me with a warm tingly feeling. It was similar to the feeling I got on those rare occasions when Ruth had kissed me gently on my cheek. I smiled and held Ruth closer to myself.
“I’d like that very much.” I whispered back into her ear.
Ruth wiggled around in my arms to face me. She was smiling. She gave me one of those soft little kisses. Then she started stroking my short hair off my face and behind my ear. I soon fell into sleep feeling the most contented I had ever in my life.