Ida Saxton McKinley—A First Lady with Cropped Hair

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The story of First Lady Ida McKinley’s rediscovered tiara has recently hit the media, after the piece showed up on the TV show Pawn Stars. The William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton Ohio has now stepped in to purchase it through donations from Ohio citizens.

I’m not much interested in diamonds, but the story encouraged me to investigate Ida McKinley herself (1847-1906), the first First Lady of the twentieth century. She had a very difficult life. Both of her children died young and she suffered a head injury that brought on neurological damage and a form of epilepsy. By the time that her husband was elected president, she mainly appeared in public while seated in a chair.

To deal with her disabilities, McKinley cut off her hair and wore it cropped closely to her head; the elaborate hats and hairdos of the era gave her headaches. For formal events, she wore the now rediscovered tiara–two diamond wings connected by a gold band—as elegant headgear. You can see both her short hair and tiara in this beautiful 1901 photograph. By attaching feathers to the tiara, she could give the impression of a dressy up do. I wonder if the women of the 1920s who cropped their hair knew that a First Lady had proceeded them.

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