Today’s post comes from Tammy Williams, Archivist and Social Media Coordinator at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
These days, everyone seems to be struggling with their hair. Hair salon closures due to the coronavirus pandemic have men with shaggy hair, or just shaving it all off, and women contemplating at-home trims. But hair issues are nothing new! Future First Lady Bess W. Truman and her husband, future President Harry S. Truman squared off over hair in the summer of 1925. And, thanks to their prolific letter writing, we have much of it “on the record!”
After serving in World War I, Harry S. Truman married Bess Wallace in the summer of 1919. Partly due to the war and other issues, they were already in their mid-30s when they married. They also initially struggled with having a baby—Bess had at least one miscarriage. When she gave birth to Margaret Truman in 1924, Bess was 39 years old.
While Harry initially did not want anything to do with the Army after his service in World War I, soon after he returned home, he joined the Army Reserves. This meant that he attended Army Reserve camp for two weeks every summer, and it gave him a chance for outdoor activity and male camaraderie that he missed outside of the Army.
In July 1925, Harry left for Army Reserve camp as usual, arriving in Fort Riley, Kansas on July 4. We know this because Truman regularly wrote to Bess any time they were apart for more than a couple of days, and he wrote almost every day. Summer in Kansas and Missouri is usually very hot and fairly humid, and we can imagine it likely the same in 1925. And in the days before home air conditioning became commonplace, summer could be uncomfortable indeed.
In the mid 1920s, young women all over the country jumped on a new fashion trend— bobbing their hair. Short hair was seen as a sign of modernity and freedom from traditional rules. And even though Bess was 40 years old in 1925, it’s easy to imagine her wanting to still keep up with the latest styles, not to mention making it easier to run around after her one year old daughter and be more comfortable.
Bess wanted to get her hair cut, but there was a small problem: Harry. Throughout his life, Harry talked about falling in love with Bess Wallace at the age of six, and specifically falling in love with her “golden curls” [page 14 of this document]. Despite being her own woman, Bess also wanted her husband’s approval.
While we do not know this for certain, it seems pretty safe to assume that Bess and Harry discussed the haircut issue in person, well before he left for summer camp. On July 7, Bess wrote to Harry:
“Nellie Noland [Harry’s cousin that lived across the street from the Trumans] has had her hair cut and she looks perfectly fine. Ethel [Nellie’s sister, who also lived across the street] is going to do it this week. They say they can’t afford to get in Miss Mary Atkins’ and Miss Barhart’s class – they are about the only old teachers left with long hair. I am crazier than ever to get mine off – Why won’t you agree enthusiastically? My hair grows so fast, I could soon put it up again if it looked very badly – Please! – I’m much more conspicuous having long hair than I will be with it short.”
Bess wrote to Harry the following day, July 8: “Ethel had her hair cut today and she looks great. When may I do it? I never wanted to do anything as badly in my life. Come on, be a sport. Ask all the married men in camp about their wives’ heads & I’ll bet anything I have there isn’t one under sixty who has long hair.”
We can guess that the letter that Bess wrote to Harry on July 7 probably reached him on July 9, when he wrote this letter to her:
“Say, if you want your hair bobbed so badly, go on and get it done. I want you to be happy regardless of what I think about it. I am very sure you’ll be just as beautiful with it off and I’ll not say anything to make you sorry for doing it. I can still see you as the finest on earth so go and have it done. I’ve never been right sure you weren’t kidding me anyway. You usually do as you like about things and that’s what I want you to do.”
Bess wrote another letter to Harry on July 11, adding as a postscript at the end, “What about the hair-cut?” Harry’s letter to her was not mailed until July 10, so she had not seen his comment by the time she wrote this letter. The following day, on July 12, Bess wrote:
“That was a dear letter you wrote me about bobbing my hair – it almost put a crimp in my wanting to do it. But if you knew the utter discomfort of all this pile on top of my head – and the time I waste every day getting it there you would insist upon me cutting it. I most sincerely hope you’ll never feel otherwise than you said you do in that letter – for life would be a dreary outlook if you ever ceased to feel just that way.”
While we do not have any photos taken of Bess in 1925, we do have a photo of Bess taken in 1928, showing her with short hair, in a popular 1920s style. Bess never wore her hair long again, but Harry continued to be in love with his “golden-haired, blue-eyed sweetheart.”