Laura Ingalls Wilder, renown author of the Little House books, created wonderfully detailed stories based on her childhood experiences living on the Frontier. While the books are rich with details about Pioneer life and life in the 19th century, Laura’s wonderful descriptions of her hair and clothes have always stood out for me. Endearingly (and much like another charming 19th century heroine, Anne Shirley) Laura’s hair color (brown) was a constant source of disappointment to her, especially in contrast to her sister Mary’s golden curls.
In Little Town on the Prairie (which takes place in De Smet Territory in 1882), Laura is quickly growing up and has started to dress and act like a young lady. It is the first book in the series in which Laura begins to wear her hair pinned up as befits her new-found maturity. In general, it seemed that 15 was about the age in which women began to dress their hair up.
She describes her morning grooming (post-farm chores, pre-breakfast) –
“In the shanty, Laura quickly washed her face and hands at the washbasin. She threw out the water in a sparkling curve falling on the grass where the sun would swiftly dry it. She ran the comb through her hair, over her head to the dangling braid. There was never enough time before breakfast to undo the long braid, brush her hair properly, and then plait it again. She would do that after the mornings work was done”
At another point in the book, Laura helps her younger sister dress. Her sister, Carrie, had buttoned it so that the buttons were on the inside of the dress.
“You can’t wear your buttons turned inside, at a Fourth of July celebration” said Laura, unbuttoning and buttoning them again properly. “If they’re outside , they keep pulling my hair,” Carrie protested. “My braids catch on them.”
“I know. Mine always did,” said Laura. “But you just have to stand it till you are big enough to put your hair up.”
While Laura bemoans the addition of a corset to her new grown up style, at least being a young lady came with the perk of no more hair pulling and snagging.
The above photo shows the three Ingalls sisters in 1881, just before the start of Little Town on the Prairie . Though the books describe the young girls wearing their hair in two braids most of the time, on at least two occasions mentioned in the books, they wear their hair loose and curled. Laura describes Ma setting their hair overnight on rags to make it curl in “Little House in the Big Woods” when she was a very little girl. It seems likely that in this, the first photo they ever sat for, they would have worn their very best dresses and special occasion hair. This is the only known photograph of Laura as a young girl – she is 14 in this photo.
Though Laura and her family lived in a small frontier town where news from the East arrived slowly, she and her sisters and Ma tried to stay up with the latest fashions. At several points during the books, issues of Godey’s Ladies Book are consulted or are wished for so they can check on a trend prior to cutting out a new dress.
Near the end of the book, Laura frets over her hairstyle and finally convinces her Ma to let her try a more updated coiffure in preparation for her first party.
Standing before the looking glass in the front where the lamp was, Laura carefully brushed and braided her hair, and put it up and took it down again. She could not arrange it to suit her.
“Oh, Ma, I do wish you would let me cut bangs,” she almost begged. “Mary Power wears them, and they are so stylish”
“Your hair looks nice the way it is,” said Ma. “Mary Power is a nice girl, but I think the new hair style is well called a ‘lunatic fringe.'”
“Your hair looks beautiful, Laura,” Carrie consoled her. “It’s such a pretty brown and so long and thick, and it shines in the light.”
Laura still looked unhappily at her reflection. She thought of the short hairs always growing at the edge around her forehead. They did not show when they were brushed back, but now she combed them all out and downward. They made a thin little fringe.
“Oh, please, Ma,” she coaxed. “I wouldn’t cut a heavy bang like Mary Power’s, but please let me cut just a little more, so I could curl it across my forehead.”
“Very well, then,” Ma gave her consent.
Laura took the sheers from Ma’s workbasket and standing before the glass she cut the hair above her forehead into a narrow fringe about two inches long. She laid her long slate pencil on the heater, and when it was heated she held it by the cool end and wound wisps of the short hair around the heated end. Holding each wisp tightly around the pencil, she curled all the bangs.
The rest of her hair she combed smoothly back and braided. She wound the long braid flatly around and around on the back of her head and snugly pinned it.
“Turn around and let me see you,” Ma said.
Laura turned. “Do you like it, Ma?”
“It looks quite nice,” Ma admitted. “Still, I liked it better before it was cut”
“Turn this way and let me see,” said Pa. He looked at her a long minute and his eyes were pleased. “Well, if you must wear this ‘lunatic fringe,’ I think you’ve made a good job of it.” And Pa turned again to his paper.
“I think it is pretty. You look very nice,” Carrie said softly.
Laura put on her brown coat and set carefully over her head her peaked hood of brown woolen lined with blue. The brown and the blue edges of cloth were pinked, and the hood had long ends that wound around her neck like a muffler.
She took one more look in the glass. Her cheeks were pink with excitement, and the curled bangs were stylish under the hood’s blue lining that made her eyes very blue.”
This detailed scene caught my attention the first time I read the books as a little girl. Who among us can’t relate to this scene of gentle teenage wheedling in order to feel stylish and confident?
This photo of Laura at age 17 shows her small, becoming Lunatic Fringe, as that style of curled bang was known. She kept the fringe until at least 1891 when she is shown wearing a slightly heavier bang in a family photo. By the 1890’s, very thick, curly bangs were very much the mode of hairdressing, so it’s not surprising she maintained this style.
Every time I read this scene in the book, I’m struck by the use of her slate pencil to curl her bangs. It’s a simple and smart solution to having no curling iron or tongs but I’m still amazed at her dexterity and that she didn’t burn herself or her hair. She never explicitly refers to curling her hair again, though she continued to wear the bangs, so I wonder if she eventually bought a metal curling iron or if she started sleeping with rag curlers in her bangs.
If she did purchase a curling iron, she would still have relied on heating it on the stove or in a flame. Once homes began using gas lines, you could purchase a small heating dish that connected to the gas line and provided controlled flames in which to heat your irons. There are also some examples of a heating dish that was fueled by alcohol spirits, not unlike a modern Sterno pot. I think we can all agree that whatever trends in beauty might dominate, it’s a relief that we don’t need to rely on live flame in order to style our hair any more.
“Little Town on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Donald Zochert