Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sepia Saturday - My rich uncle

The subject for this week was, as usual, whatever catches your fancy in the photo. How could it be anything but HAIR?
My rich uncle James, an unknown woman, Aunt Hilda, Stuart Carroll

Letter from cousin Norma
Resurrected! An older blog, spiffed up a bit for Sepia Saturday but too late to post. 

The letter from my cousin Norma reads: 
Dear Helen
Sure did enjoy our visit. Found these pictures and thought you might like them. This
picture of Eilleen was probably taken in Fort William. The other picture is of your rich
uncle who died in Hawaii in 1924. (The one with all the hair). Hilda (second from right) and Stuart Carroll (far right) had a love affair for years but they were cousins far removed and that's why they didn't get married. 

All the best to you and your sister in 2003. This is the only address I have. Hope it gets
to you. 

Norma enclosed the "rich uncle" photo (see above) with the letter.  "Hairy" James Armstrong was my grandmother's brother. He had plenty of hair and plenty of money; the money he acquired from real estate dealings in Hawaii and Los Angeles - don't know where the hair came from because the rest of the family had rather wispy heads. He died in 1926  and his estate was managed by the Hawaiian Trust Company which did a fine job of distributing monthly stipends to his sisters and brothers who survived him. Upon each sibling's deaths their share of the fund passed along to their children. As James had 8 siblings, at final count, when the last few pennies were distributed, several hundred people shared the wealth. Looking over the list of Irish names I think I'm related to most of the Micks in Canada. 

James married but his wife pre-deceased him; he didn't have any children so his hair gene didn't get passed along. Too bad.  Thick and plentiful as it was, I'm sure he complained about it. It looks unwieldy and I doubt he could have crammed all the frizz under that hat. The beard and mustache should have had some attention and I'm guessing a decent tailor could have fixed that jacket! But Uncle James spent most of his time in Hawaii and on the pineapple plantations (he had a few), the dress/grooming standards were pretty lax. 

Too bad about my aunt Hilda and her cousin, Stuart, falling in love. She fell only once and I guess she was never interested in anyone else. You can't tell much from this photo but she was quite beautiful even as a white-haired old woman which is how I knew her. Competent too...she worked as a book keeper and had a life long career. She had a strong hand at home where she lived with her mother and two sisters. Hilda ran the roost quietly and firmly. 

One Christmas Eve I went over to Hilda's house after midnight mass. She was all aflutter because her purse had been snatched as she walked to church. "God damn you" she'd shouted after the thief as he ran away. She was more upset that she couldn't go to communion than she was with the snatched purse. After all, she had the sin of curse on her soul. As I recall she was having a "bit of a nip" to calm herself down. The Aunts in those days never actually had a drink as in a regular glass, or with ice or an olive or anything like that.  A tiny stemmed sherry glass about the size of a thimble is what they took - and always after a bad shock, or a chill, or for fortification in rare justifiable instances like the time they had to go to the funeral home to sign for the remains of an uncle none of us knew we had.  But that's another story. 

Catholics in our family (that was everybody) used to follow all the rules of the church back then; they paid attention to the details and really believed you could go to hell on a technicality (they had me convinced for a while).  How ridiculous it was to think Hilda, who never harmed a soul in her life, would be punished in some nit-picky way if she suddenly died before being absolved for paltry lapse . If anybody was damned in the purse snatching incident it would in all fairness be the snatcher and not the snatchee. "God damn you!" was more a statement of the inevitable destiny of the thief and not a case of taking the Lord's name in vain. In modern society where we're assaulted daily by a constant storm of profanity, Hilda's curse seems so innocent....

But hair is the subject du jour, not curses, heaven, hell or damnation. Other than my hairy uncle picture I could find no long flowing locks on the women in my family. I did find this splendid picture though of the entire complement of Sutherland sisters, the one pictured in the prompt and her six sisters,who it seems were sort of like the Kardashians of the time. They had 37 feet of hair between them. 

From the website Collectors Weekly:

According to Stickney, the Sutherland women achieved such “It Girl” status, they dominated the front page of newspapers, knocking U.S. presidents like Rutherford B. Hayes and William Howard Taft below the fold. Hair historian Bill Severn said, “Everything they did was news and for years their hair made Sutherland a household name.” Besides the gossip cycle, features on the Sutherlands appeared in The New YorkerTimeThe New York Times, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York WorldHarper’s,McClure’sCosmopolitan, and Reader’s Digest.
Poems, prose, and stage plays all furthered their legend. Of course, at the height of their popularity, Sutherland Sister memorabilia became instantly collectible, as concert programs, photos, calling cards, and postcards of the women would be framed, particularly when they were autographed. But the obsession with getting a piece of the septet’s hair got creepy, too. According to Stickney, one fan is said to have offered Victoria $2,500 to cut off all her hair. “She refused that offer, but sold one strand of hair to a jeweler for $25,” he writes. “The jeweler suspended the hair in his shop window with a seven carat diamond at the end.”

Even though they were raking in millions at the turn of the century, the women’s spending on such extravagances—servants, clothesfine jewelry, seconds homes, globe-trotting, booze, and lovers—was out of control. Outwardly, they maintained the appearances of proper, educated Christians, but behind closed doors, they engaged in love triangles, in-fighting, drug use, and bad financial investments. Their antics and wild, over-the-top parties were the talk of Niagara County, as people speculated about whether they were polyamorous or practicing spiritualism or witchcraft.
Admission 10 cts. Seats Free???

Their father developed a hair tonic, variously called a hair fertilizer and hair grower, which became a huge success and was sold all around the world. By 1890 they'd sold over 3 million dollars worth of the stuff at about a dollar a bottle. 

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