“I was just happy to be able to do something.”—Mary Babnick Brown
On March 6, 1943, the New York Times reported that eleven-year-old Anita Hochberg of Sea Cliff, Long Island, had donated fourteen inches of her “patriotic blonde” hair to the Bendix Aviation Corporation. She was the latest in a countless number of young girls across the country who gladly had their blonde locks shorn for the sake of the war effort.
The call for human hair was announced by the War Department in July 1941. As it explained, human hair—specifically blonde female hair—was actually a strategic material used in meteorological and other precision instruments. Scientists had discovered that blonde hair was particularly sensitive to changes in heat and cold and these changes could be measured with great accuracy. In addition to being blonde, two other conditions were required: that the hair had never been touched by curling irons or chemicals other than ordinary shampoo and that the hair be at least twelve inches long. Previously War Department stocks had been filled primarily by women in the Balkans, but as the war in Europe expanded, that source of supply was cut off. When attempts to find substitutes, including synthetic fibers and the web silk of black widow spiders, proved unsatisfactory, the War Department issued its call, stating it would pay top dollar though not specifying what that price was.
Army experts particularly targeted regions with large Scandinavian populations, such as Minnesota and the Dakotas. They expected that most donations would come from school girls or young women whose hair was less likely to have been treated. As it turned out one of the first recognized donations was from sixteen-year-old Doris Jahncke of Durbin, North Dakota, less than twenty miles west of Fargo. When she learned of the War Department’s request, she sent samples of her hair, tied with a red, white, and blue ribbon. The Army accepted her offer. She then cut off thirty inches of her tresses and mailed them to Washington, D.C.
At the time when Anita Hochberg heard of the news, her hair was too short. Despite her mother’s protests to cut it in the warm weather, Anita let her hair grow long. To keep it in good condition, every night Anita’s mother put it up in rag curls. When it reached the necessary length in early 1943, Anita’s cut hair weighed a pound and a half. Sold for $2.50 an ounce, it netted her $60, a considerable sum then (privates in the Army, for example, earned $50 a month). The money was donated to the American Red Cross and the USO. She received a framed certificate from Bendix that read, “Thanks are extended to Anita M. Hochberg for a gift of human hair, from which selection will be made for use on instruments serving the nation’s war requirements and for the needs of science and industry. By the above kind act not only has the national need been facilitated, but the funds of the USO and the Red Cross have been benefited, as the cash market value of all hair is being paid into these humanitarian societies.”
Mary Babnick Brown of Pueblo, Colorado, was another woman who donated her hair to the American war effort. Known locally as “the lady with the crown” because she braided her hair, which reached her knees, and wrapped it around her head. As opposed to the young girl contributors, she was a thirty-six-year-old woman working in a broom factory. During her off hours she helped as a USO volunteer at the Pueblo Army Air Base. Her two brothers were unable to enter the service for medical reasons. Wanting to do more for the war effort, when she heard of the War Department’s request she sent in a sample and was informed of its acceptance. She confessed that after cutting off thirty-four inches of her hair and sending it to Washington, she “cried for two months.” In 1990, in a ceremony at the Air Force Academy, Mary Brown received a special achievement award from the Colorado Aviation Historical Society for her donation.
In May 1943, the Office of War Information announced that the military’s need for human hair was fulfilled and that donations were no longer necessary.
There have been some claims and counterclaims regarding what the human hair was used for. While its use in meteorological instruments such as radiosonde hygrometers is acknowledged, there are disputed claims regarding human hair use in bombsight cross hairs, particularly the Norden bombsight. While anecdotal accounts of human hair in bombsights exist, verifiable accounts only indicate it was used in precision weather instruments. Surviving Norden bombsights reveal that the cross hairs were etched in glass by diamond cutters.