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The not so permanent home permanents

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
Miller family photo Miller family photo

During the Great Depression, Shirley Temple, an adorable, multi-talented, curly haired child actress and dancer won the hearts of Americans everywhere, including the hearts in Marianna. Countless mothers wanted their daughters to look like Shirley Temple. Parents who could afford it gave their daughters tap dancing lessons. Those who couldn’t, gave their daughters home permanents. I was one of the unlucky ones. 

My mother had natural, dark, silky curls, and the only reason she ever darkened the door of a Beauty Salon was to get a haircut, but I had not inherited her gene for curly hair. I had seen Margaret Obrien, another popular child actress in a movie and knowing I could never look like Shirley Temple, asked Mother if I could have pigtails like Margaret Obrien’s.   

“No, she said. “Your hair is too thick for braids, and I want your hair short, so it will be easier to wash.”

What she didn’t realize was that thick hair was not a good choice for permanent waves, which were all the rage at that time. Home permanents were cheaper than those offered at Inez’s Beauty Shop and Mother had three daughters, so, being the oldest, I got the first one.

I vaguely recall having a protective sheet of plastic around my shoulders and smelling the unforgettable fumes of chemicals Mother applied to my hair, which had been wound around curlers. This was not fun. It was even less fun when after the chemicals were washed out of my hair, and she combed it.   Normally, this would not have been difficult, but after my thick, straight hair was permanently curled, I did not look at all like Shirley Temple. I looked like a Mau Mau warrior straight out of a jungle movie.  

Even worse, combing through that mass of snarled hair caused pain. Mother didn’t know that with hair like mine, she should have held a handful of hair, then pushed it down toward the scalp before combing through it. That is the only way to avoid pain, but she had never dealt with hair like that before.  She simply attacked the snarls and diligently pulled the comb through, which felt like the roots of my hair were being pulled out.  After that, I told her I would comb it myself. 

To my horror, I learned that she planned to have a family photo made at Whittington’s studio, which is   why she had decided to give me a permanent. I was not happy. I also had to my wear most hated dress, a lime green thing, which made me look yellow, but luckily, it was to be a black and white photo. Once at the studio, she looked at my horrible hair and decided it might help if she combed it. Oh, how that hurt! My eyes were filled with tears as she pointed toward the photographer and asked us to smile for the camera.

I came across that old photo recently and remembered it as one of the worst days of my childhood. I wondered who I should blame for such a horrible invention as home permanents and learned that a German, Karl Wessler, gave the first permanent wave in 1905, using cow urine and water as a curling lotion, which he wrapped around spiral rods attached to a heating device.  He tried it first on his wife, and succeeded in burning off all her very long hair and some of her scalp.

He didn’t give up, though, and moved to London. When World War I broke out, he was arrested just because he was a German, but using a false name, he somehow managed to escape and get on a ship headed for New York. He improved his machines and became much in demand in New York as Americans were watching movies with actresses whose hair always looked amazing. He opened more hair salons in New York as well as in Chicago, Detroit, Palm Beach and Philadelphia. 

Realizing he could make even more money if he could provide permanent waves to middle class women, he developed a home permanent machine that sold for $15, but it was not a success. Meanwhile, a Swiss immigrant, Eugene Suter, was manufacturing and repairing electrical machines in London. He was approached by another immigrant, Isidoro Calveta, who was from Spain. Calveta had his own design for a permanent wave machine and hired Suter to manufacture them, which he planned to sell commercially under the name of Eugene Lt’d.

However, Suter, recognizing a good thing when he saw it, began making a similar machine and marketed it under the commercial name, Icall Lt’d. Naturally, the simultaneous manufacturing of two competing products led to conflict and a law suit. Suter fled to New York, where he worked with Nester to develop a home permanent to be sold under the name, Nestle.  As permanents are not permanent and have to be done over and again, this made them both very rich, but the Great Depression and the collapse of the stock market ended their joy ride.

Permanents are no longer popular as Americans still copy their favorite movie stars, and long, straight hair is now the rage. However, those who don’t want curls can have their hair straitened. There are gadgets for that too.

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