THE WAINWRIGHT LETTERS
"The aim of the Mercia Guild is to develop beautiful hair. Beautiful hair is long, abundant, and lustrous."
--from the House Rules of the Mercia Guild
Mrs. Wainwrightís Seminary for Young
September 20, 1881
I have been here three whole days now and meant to write sooner. But weíve been kept so busy I havenít had a minute to call my own. Which is probably just as well, otherwise I would have missed you, and Papa, and Susie and Baby Jim just too much. I cried a bit when you first walked down the drive, but then this nicest girl came up and started showing me things, and soon things werenít so bad.
The first day I had to go around and demonstrate all my domestic skills. I played 'The Dying Poet' for Mr. Grant, who was ever so polite, but I donít think Iíll ever be much good at the piano. Miss. Simons, though, had nice things to say about that antimacassar I crocheted last Christmas. Iím very proud of the way it turned out. Then I was sent to see a certain Dr. Wurm, who, for some reason, wanted to examine my hair. He told me it looked very pretty against the light. Well, Iíve never thought much about it before, but I guess it is one of my better features. Then he said he was sorry it wasnít any longer, which kind of surprised me, Ďcause I always thought it nice and long. Remember how pleased you were when I got so I could sit on it for the first time last summer? And itís grown a bunch since then. Anyway, I heard later Iím going to be made a member of something they call the 'Mercia Guild,' which I gather is something rather special here. Donít know anything about it yet, but Iíll write as soon as I learn something.
Hugs and kisses to you all, and I hope Rusty wonít miss me too much. Heís such a very special dog.
Your loving daughter,
September 26 1881
A lotís been happening since I wrote you last. Iíve been moved to a different part of the main building -- they call it Spilman Hall -- and have met all the girls in my new form. Remember me telling you about that Dr. Wurm who thought my hair was too short? Well, maybe heís right -- by Wainwright standards, anyway -- Ďcause almost everybody here turns out to have braids a lot longer than mine, and one girl named Isabelle has them all the way down to the floor! Can you believe it? Itís simply amazing!
Iíve been given a big sister named Ellen, whose so mature. Sheís really nice, too, and has all this gorgeous blond hair piled in a big knot on top of her head. She came in the first night and helped me with my hair, and I guess I going to need help, because, you know what? I had to brush it 100 strokes before I got into bed. Sheís taught me a new way to braid my hair, too, which makes it look ever so pretty. Theyíve taken away that nice mother-of-pearl brush you gave me as a going-away present, which made me sad, but I got another one almost as nice.
Your daughter Fanny
October 2, 1881
I got into trouble with Mrs. Scott -- on Monday I think it was. Sheís our house mother and very strict I gather. It seems every time we sit down, weíre suppose to fold our braids carefully across our laps. She says itís to make sure they keep off the floor and stay nice and clean. Well, I guess that makes sense for some of the girls, Ďcause they do have such amazingly long braids, but mine have a long way to go before that happens. Mrs. Scott says never mind about that, itís only a matter of time and I should get in the habit, but I forget half the time.
Anyway, on Tuesday after Bible studies we all had to go get our hair washed. Itís mandatory for us. They have a special place set aside just for this and everybody in my form was there, all with their big sisters, and Mrs. Scott and Dr. Wurm were there too. Well. we all had our hair let out and covered with this special good-smelling soap. It was hard not to stare at all the different kinds of hair in the room, all different colors, some really straight, like mine, and others very curly. And so much of it, too. Many of the girls have hair to die for. Well, we all splashed around and tossed our manes like they were flags on the Fourth of July and had a really lovely time. It was kind of boring, though, afterwards having to wait for our hair to dry. Thatís when weíre supposed to get our reading done, but I havenít been given any yet, so it seemed to take forever. I did get to help brush it some, though. The thing is, when we were all through, my head felt so good, and Iíd made a lot of new friends.
I seem to be doing nothing but talk about hair, but that seems to be very important around here. They want everybody to take Ďspecially good care of her hair, and that means we spend a lot of time thinking about it.
October 14, 1881
Itís turned really cold around here. Have you been feeling it there in New Haven? Piano is going slowly and I donít think Iím going to like Mr. Grant very much, but I got an A on a silhouette I cut for Miss Foster.
We do seem to spend a lot of time over our hair. Well, I guess it would take a lot of time for some of the girls, Ďcause they have so much of it. We have this special period when weíre all suppose to just sit about with it hanging loose. The air is suppose to be good for it or something. Itís the same place where we get it washed, and we do make a funny spectacle all just sitting around with our hair dangling like that. It seems to spill all over the place. Remember me telling you about ĎBelle? Sheís the one who has these two plaits clear down to the floor. Well, you wouldnít believe how long her hair gets after itís been unwound. Iíve never seen anything like it. She has to be extra careful with it Ďcause sheís likely to trip over it. And thereís this other girl named Dela with enough hair for two of the rest of us. Wish she could give some of it to me! It comes way down past her knees and is so thick it bushes out all over the place, and you can hardly even see her through it all. Itís like sheís covered in this great shaggy rug! She has to have it done up in four braids unlike the rest of us, where two is enough.
I guess all this extra attention has been doing good things for my hair, because I was sitting there today, like I told you, running my fingers through it while it flowed all over me. Well, it suddenly seems a lot softer and shinier than it used to. Iíve discovered itís fun to feel, too -- smoother than itís ever been, and all shimmery. And I like the way it ripples whenever I stroke it. I may be imagining things, but I think itís gotten a bit thicker, too. Iím so looking forward to your visit next week. I want you to have a look at it for yourselves. I know youíll be pleased.
October 22 
It was such a grand treat seeing you and Papa last Sunday. I only wish you could have stayed a while longer. Glad you liked the way my hair was looking. Of course you couldnít really tell much with it so tightly braided like that, but you got the general idea. Mrs. Scott was extra particular about the way our braids were done that day, I can tell you!
I have discovered what the Mercia Guild is all about, but I guess you probably know all this anyway. I have come to realize that we Mercia girls are supposed to be noticed for our hair. I donít know if Iíll ever be famous for mine, though, Ďcause there are just so many amazing manes here. Some of the upper formers get talked about a lot. Thereís this one girl in particular named Sarah who has red hair that everyone seems in awe of. They say she can stand on it. You canít tell, though, because she always wears her hair piled up in this very fashionable bun, like all the other upper formers, and looks so grown up. Sheís very pretty, too, and ever so clever. She has this room mate with wonderful hair also, black as midnight, and you ought to see how it shimmers. Itís almost like it had a light glowing inside it somewhere.
Weíve all been keeping very busy. Ellen comes and helps me brush my hair twice every day and has taught me all kinds of clever ways to braid it afterwards. We have to wash it twice each week and that takes a lot of time, too. Just to unwrap it all and brush out the nine of us takes a good half hour at the outset, Ďcause they do it so painstakingly. Mrs. Scott, the House Mother you met Sunday, is ever so fussy about our braids. She inspects them each and every morning, and I mean examines them thoroughly. I was late getting up this morning, and Ellen and I had to hurry to get them finished in time, and Mrs. Scott didnít like that one bit. I had to go find Ellen and get her to do them all over again. I hope I havenít gotten her in any trouble.
Belle and I are getting to be best friends. Sheís so proud of her incredible braids and is spending extra time over them of late. They seem to go on simply forever, and sheís doing everything she can to get them so long theyíll make her put her hair up. Well, I donít think theyíll let her wear it up like the big girls, but I havenít the heart to tell her.
Love, Your Fan
December 9, 1881
Will you be coming for the big Christmas pageant next week? Iím not in it, but everyone says it will be very special. Please do try. IĎve been hearing the nicest things about my hair all week, about how much better itís starting to look. I know this shouldnít turn my head or anything, but itís nice to hear when everything is still so new.
The worst thing about school is the food. They give us this special powder which is suppose to do wonderful things for our hair, but it tastes just awful. Ellen says to never mind, that itís the price we have to pay to be members of the Mercia Guild, and Iíll be glad one day.
January 3, 1882
I had to go see Dr. Wurm in his office the minute I got back after Christmas. Heís such a quaint man and has this funny foreign accent, but heís ever so nice. He took my braids out and commented on my progress. Then he took this long tape measure and measured my hair all the way down and wrote something in a little notebook. He never seems in any hurry. Next he took out this tiny pair of scissors and carefully removed the barest portion from the bottom of my hair, so you couldnít really tell anything was missing. He patted me on the head afterwards and was most complimentary. He told me to keep up the good work, so I guess Iím making progress.
Belle is ever so happy that sheís going to get to wear her hair up. Well, not exactly up really, but she gets to loop her plaits so they will keep off the floor.
All my love,
June 9, 1882
You will have gotten a letter from Mrs. Wainwright about what is to be done regarding my hair over the summer vacation. I know it will seem like a lot of work, but I can help you with most of it. They say that our hair is a special gift and we should keep up our regular routine even while school is out. Only we donít have to take any of that dreadful protein powder. Hooray! Have to go now. Itís hair-washing day!
Your loving Fan
September 18, 1882
Dearest Mama and Papa,
It seems funny to be back at Wainwright after being home all summer. Itís kind of strange and familiar all at the same time. We had such good times together, and I think we managed to looked after my hair just the way they told us. Anyway, itís still all there!
Mrs. Scott send me right to Dr. Wurm as soon as I checked in, and he reports that my hair has grown exactly seven inches since he first saw me last autumn. I guess thatís about right, as I know itís about down to my knees now. He sounded very pleased, Ďcause he told me, "Wainwright seems to have done well by you." I was then told to report back to the Mercia wing. Hope we donít have to eat anymore of that awful powder we had last year.
Iím glad Iím getting to be a Mercia girl again, because all my best friends are here in this wing. I donít know many of the others well at all. Belle and Louise and Martha are all here and as nice as ever. The famous Sarah graduated in the spring, and I hear is going to be a debutante this winter. There is a new girl here, too, who is causing a sensation. Her hair is so incredibly long that I hear theyíre going to have to make some kind of special arrangements for it. Dr. Wurm told us she has just turned thirteen and that her hair is already over seven feet long, something of a Wainwright record, I reckon. I think Belle is going to be jealous, because she wonít be the only third former who gets to loop her braids up this term. Iíll let you know more later.
Love as always,
September 27, 1882
They still have that terrible-tasting powder in the dining room, sorry to report, and Mrs. Scott is as strict as ever. If you do just what she says, though, she isnít really so bad. I am remembering to do my braids neatly and to keep them crossed in my lap.
Everything they say about Claire is true. Sheís the new girl I was telling you about who is suppose to have this phenomenally long hair -- over seven feet of it. I saw her for the first time with it all down and being brushed out during our 'breathing' session this morning, and Iíve never seen anything like it. Itís like a great golden cloud. Her hair looks even longer than it actually is because sheís rather short, and it spilled all over the carpet when they parted her plaits, which seem endless. Even Belle canít boast hair like that. Nor any of the Sutherland Sisters I would imagine. Anyway, Dr. Wurm told her to drape her hair over this kind of frame-like thing he has and to let it soak in the air that way. And heís told her big sister that Claire needs to stand on a chair or something every time she gets it brushed. I rather think Kate (thatís her big sister) has her work cut out for her. But then, Kate has so much hair herself that she ought to manage all right.
Everyoneís hair seems to have grown prodigiously over the summer, especially Belleís, so I canít take too much comfort in my own seven-inch progress. Mine is still shorter than many of the others. Still Iíll always remember what you told me, that my hair is as pretty as anyone elseís.
December 18, 1882
I am so looking forward to the holidays. I think I can manage my hair all on my own this time, so you neednít worry about its upkeep. Say hello to Susie and Jim for me, and of course darling Papa. I was so sorry to hear about Rusty being hit by the phaeton.
I guess Iím feeling pensive just now for another reason, too. I went to Amy Morrisonís recital yesterday afternoon. Sheís Mr. Grantís premier piano student, and she played 'The Rosary' divinely. We donít get to socialize with the rest of the school as much as I would wish. Still I like her a lot, so I went up to congratulate her afterwards. Maybe Iíve lived with the Mercia Guild too long, but I was struck by how drab her hair looked, tight little sausage curls that barely covered her neck. She smiled at me and asked if she could feel my hair. I said certainly. She picked up one of my braids and said, "Oh, so light and fairy-soft, and it reaches to your knees. Youíre so lucky! I wish I had hair like that." She says she lives in awe of the Mercia girls and once had long hair herself, until she was stricken with scarlet fever two years ago and it all fell out. Itís a lesson I will never forget; I will never again take my hair for granted.
September 22, 1883
Well, here I am back at Mrs. Wainwrightís for a third straight year. Itís hard to believe how fast the time has flown and how much my hair has filled out. I was looking at it just a moment ago, and it was floating half way down between my knees and the floor. Dr. Wurm says he sees no reason why it wonít continue to grow until I can actually stand on it, just like Belle. Of course, Belleís hair just keeps getting longer and longer, and Claire -- well, I wonít even go into that! She just has to have the most spectacular head of hair ever to be seen at Wainwright. We are doing our own hair all by ourselves now, Belle and I, and no more big sisters. Big Sisters came in handy when we were younger, but they say we need to learn to look after ourselves now that weíre almost ready to put our hair up. Looking forward to that day with great anticipation!
March 10, 1884,
I suddenly feel so grown up. We are going to put our hair up, and no more braids! except at night. To mark the occasion, Mrs. Scott presented us with charming little aigrettes.
Iím so glad sister Susie will be joining me at Wainwright next year. Sheís bound to make the Mercias with that scrumptious wavy hair of hers. I promise to keep a good eye on her.
Your loving Fan
June 3, 1884
Almost had the most dreadful accident with my hair today. I guess I keep forgetting how much of it Iíve acquired. It was such a lovely spring day that Belle and I decided to go for a walk in the woods, when we got caught in this most terrific downpour. We had only our parasols with us, and they didnít do a thing to protect us from the onslaught. Anyway, it started raining really hard, and my hair got soaked. That must have done it, because I could feel it getting heavy, sag to one side, and suddenly it all came down in a tumble. So there we were, running towards Spilman Hall, with Belle screaming, and my wet hair flying out behind me like I was some kind of a mermaid, and it must have gotten snagged on a tree or something, because all at once I was brought up short and unable to move. Well, there we were getting wetter and wetter, and Belle was trying to help me unsnarl my hair, and it was only getting more and more tangled. It was like being in a nightmare! I was so afraid I was going to lose my hair. That someone was going to have to come and cut me free. Finally we did manage to get it loose by breaking off a couple of branches and got back to school looking like a pair of drowned water rats. Belle must have had her hair much more firmly fastened than mine, because it never budged an inch, but I was a sorry sight, with my hair all matted and covered with twigs. I though I would catch the very dickens, but it never happened. They rubbed me down and put me to bed against the chill, and everything turned out fine, so please donít worry. Belle even managed to help me pick the twigs out of my hair, and I was able to give it a good brushing aferwards.
I think I was very lucky, but Iíve got to learn to be more careful in the future. Long hair is a pleasure, but it carries with it certain responsibilities.
Your loving daughter,
September 25, 1884
Another school year is underway, and this time Iím going to be a Big Sister! Hope I get a nice little one to look after. It wonít be Susie, Ďcause I asked. I checked up on her first thing and sheís settling in nicely. Course she finds things as strange and unfamiliar as I did at first. Sheís going to be a Mercia, just as I predicted, so sheíll be near by. She made quite an impression on Dr. Wurm from what I hear.
The big news is that Claire will not be returning to the Mercia Guild or even Wainwright this term. The rumor going around is that sheís had her hair cut back clear to her waist after it got to be over eight feet long. They say she and her mother found it was just too much trouble to be bothered with. I would hate to think this were true. It was such beautiful hair, the color of ripe corn and smooth as butter. I know if I had been blessed with such magnificent tresses I would savour them forever. I am just thankful for what I have, and itís still getting longer and lovelier every day. Dr. Wurm was most complimentary when I visited him on Friday.
[undated, but probably October 1884]
Theyíve given me little Helen to look after. Her hair is so curly it takes forever to brush out properly. Good thing Iíve had plenty of practice. And itís a good thing sheís so patient. Must say she has pretty hair, though. It tumbles clear down to her [illegible, but probably derriere] in vast torrents. Red as a carrot, too, and when weíre through, it gleams just like mahogany. Then I have to go put in my own hundred strokes and my arms are tired, I can tell you. Have been noticing of late how long and rich my hair is appearing, so I donít mind. Wainwright has done it wonders!
March 4, 1885
A dark and bitterly cold day, but a day to celebrate nonetheless. I was brushing my hair this morning and noticed it touching the carpet even when I was standing up my straightest. I know itís been down around my ankles for quite some time now, but this was the first time I didnít have to bend over even the tiniest bit to get it to reach the floor. So, for the first time I can claim that I have hair as long as I am tall! It really does look nice, and I owe it all to the Wainwright Seminary and Dr. Wurm, whom I hear will be retiring at the end of this term. I wonder who Mrs. Wainwright will find to replace him.
Your loving daughter Fanny
September 23, 1886
Dear Mother and Father,
Iím sitting here waiting for my hair to dry. I know I should be working on my French grammar, but feel more inclined to write you. Iím sorry to soon be leaving Wainwright and my dear friends, but somehow the old place doesnít seem the same without Susie. All summer I stood by helplessly watching my own flesh and blood grow weaker and weaker with consumption, then fading away, carried off by the angels. Why do such terrible things have to happen? My younger sister would have made Dr. Wurm so proud with that magnificent hair of hers. Iím can only hope in his retirement he knows nothing of our tragedy. Old Mrs. Scott has retired too. And to think I used to think her such an ogre. Hope I can shake off this depression. Even my own hair gives me little comfort just now, and to think I was once so proud of it, all six pampered feet of it.
But enough of this! I must not inflict my sorrow on your own pain. I must learn to be brave. Thank goodness for Belle and Martha. What a solace they have been to me this past week! Martha, in particular, who found Susie such a charmer and nurtured her as her Big Sister the one year she was among us at Wainwright. She has convinced me, and I know what I must now do. My own hair will live on as a memorial to my dear, departed sister. I will do my best to fulfill Susieís unfinished dream and lavish on it the utmost care. It shall achieve perfection. How alive it looks, flowing and dancing before me, as it dries in the lamplight. It envelopes me in its protective shelter. Part of me -- yet somehow apart, a separate entity. It is my consolation and comfort. I will devote myself to it. Long may it prosper!
Editorís note: The author of these
letters graduated from Mrs. Wainwrightís Seminary in the spring of 1887
with honors in needlepoint and deportment, and was presented to New York
Society the following season. According to family records, her hair continued
to grow throughout her school career, obtaining an eventual length of 6
feet, 6 inches, before being cut back to her knees the week before her
coming-out party. The reason given for so doing was the customary Victorian
fear of any excessive behavior; her abundant tresses had come to the attention
of the press. Her hair was trimmed by some 28 inches and the cutting carefully
preserved as a memento of her school days. Actually, the act seems only
to have stimulated her hair to increased luster and vitality. At the time
of her marriage in 1891, she was generally regarded as having the most
beautiful hair in society.
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