In 1883, 25-year old John Rodemeyer of Canaan, Conn., fell in love with young Jenny Brown. But when she opted to marry the older, established James Bierce instead, Rodemeyer launched the Winstedt Bachelor’s Club. And for the next 30 years, the spirited newspaper editor, poet and humorist kept himself single. It isn’t clear, though, whether he did it of his own choosing.
But nearly 30 years later in 1912, Rodemeyer reunited with Jenny. The bachelor’s club – down to just two members – then died. With his November 1913 wedding to Jenny (who had been left a widow) on the horizon, Rodemeyer needed a new club. The idea came right off the top of his head—his balding head. Thus the Bald Head Club of America was born.
Rodemeyer had company, as others started clubs with satirical names. After the Civil War, social clubs flourished among businessmen who needed to build their contacts. Some, like Rodemeyer, saw a chance to make fun of the clubs – and enjoy the same benefits. There was the Anti-Bell Ringing Society, the Association of Bankrupt Insurance Companies, the Mammoth Cod Association and the Flouring Committee.
The Bald Head Club
Rodemeyer first got the idea of the club when a photographer visited Falls Village, Conn. Rodemeyer had recently returned to the area to begin publishing the Connecticut Western News after stints as a newspaper editor in Hartford, New York and New Haven.
The photographer had snapped a photo of six men seated on the steps of the Litchfield County courthouse, all of them completely bald. The novelty photo was turned (probably by Rodemeyer) into a postcard with the caption: The Six Sutherland Brothers. It was a joke playing on the popularity of the Seven Sutherland Sisters – a Victorian era family of young women with extremely long hair.
Rodemeyer, ever the publicity seeker, would boast later that he felt an instant kinship with his balding brethren. A bald pate, he declared, was nothing to be ashamed of. (Nor was it anything to be particularly proud of.) It just was.
The cause of baldness, the Bald Head Club of America concluded, was loss of hair. And its central purpose was to get together once a year, make fun of all the falderal surrounding baldness and have a great time at a banquet. From time to time, the club also made claims for the superiority of the bald man over his haired counterpart.
The club was an instant success. Newspapers across the country publicized it, along with the entry requirements. One had to have a bald patch of at least three inches in diameter, good character and payment of a dollar entry fee.
It wasn’t always easy separating fact from fiction when it came to the new club. Especially in its early days, Rodemeyer made up stories about meetings and the club establishing itself. Eventually, however, the stories became true — sort of.
People had good reason to suspect Rodemeyer was pulling their leg. One of his early ventures, a newspaper called the Yellow Spasm, valued humor over a faithful recounting of the news and featured eligible bachelor ads.
Over the years, the club claimed thousands of members, with branches springing up here and there across the country. Connecticut governors joined in, Rodemeyer said. He declared the state’s congressmen signed up their fellow legislators from Washington, Rodemeyer said. Rodemeyer even claimed former president William Howard Taft as a member, despite his wife’s well-established dislike of bald servants in the White House.
Knights of the Gleaming Skull
At the heart of the club, though, was always the its annual banquet. It consisted of “the happiest, jolliest men in America.” Rodemeyer took every opportunity to lampoon himself and his club and its Knights of the Gleaming Skull.
He convinced the Connecticut Legislature, after a light-hearted hearing, to grant the organization a charter so it could expand into new states. The New York Times in 1921 reported that Rodemeyer made a presentation to the Connecticut General Assembly. He asked for the right to issue charters and set up branches around the country so “groups of bald-heads in other states…might be united in a common bond of hairless brotherhood, that every city and town might some day have its own club of happy individuals with shining pates and smiling faces.”
Rodemeyer once got an invitation to write about the club because so many people thought it pure fiction. He wrote: “The Bald-Head Club of America is dedicated to the proposition that Man, in his highest type, is not, primarily or necessarily, a fur-bearing animal, like the otter, seal, beaver, plush, Welsh rabbit or mock-turtle.”
Rodemeyer ended his career at the Greenwich News and Graphic and passed away in 1943. The club, though, or at least tales of the club, lived on after his passing.
This story about the Bald Head Club was updated in 2021.