Chasing Curls: A Look At The History Of The Permanent Wave

By | March 23, 2022

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A hairdresser gives a customer a permanent wave by placing the hair in card tubes, 1921. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

If you were born with naturally curly hair, you probably struggle to understand why anyone would want to get a permanent wave, but for people with stick-straight hair, the allure of a perm is palpable, even if it is a time-consuming and smelly affair. Still, it could be worse. A century ago, it was even more of an ordeal.

Marcel Grateau And Charles Nessler

French hairstylist Marcel Grateau is credited with laying the foundation for the permanent wave. In 1872, when curly hair was in fashion, he created a type of heated curling iron for a group of Paris sex workers. The resulting hairstyle, called "marcelling," quickly became fashionable for all Parisian women for the next half century, but the process was rather time-consuming.

In 1906, German hairdresser Karl Nessler developed a method for creating long-lasting curls through a combination of chemical processing and thermal heat. His wave machine was used in the first true permanent hair-curling process, but it was a lengthy and cumbersome ordeal that involved winding hair around metal rods, drenching it in caustic chemicals, and then sitting still for hours while the machine heated the rods. It was a risky endeavor, too. According to reports, Nessler first tested his wave machine on his own wife and ended up burning all the hair off her head.

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Patent image of permanent wave machine invented in by Joyner, 1928. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Electric Helmets, Cold Waving, And Home Perms

In the 1920s, black hairstyling pioneer Marjorie Joyner catered to clients wishing to straighten their naturally curly hair by inventing a helmet-like device for using an electrical current to heat hair that was clamped into position. She patented her device in 1928, becoming the first black woman to own a patent, and hair salons around the country began using it, quickly realizing the helmet could also be used to curl straight hair.

A decade later, Arnold F. Willatt devised a method for permanently curling hair without using heat, electricity, or machines. His "cold wave" method involved winding hair around rods or curlers and applying a mixture of ammonium thioglycolate, which breaks open the keratin structure of the hair and makes the hair shaft elastic, before rinsing and applying another chemical to reseal the keratin structure.

The big advantage of the cold wave method was that the client wasn't tethered to a machine for hours on end with electrical currents heating up metal rods on their scalp, but it still took as long as six hours, involved harsh chemicals, and required a pricey trip to the salon. In the 1950s, home perms hit the market and gave people the option of curling their own hair at home for a fraction of the cost of a salon visit. In 1976, Jheri Redding created his own version of the perm, called the "Jheri curl," using toothpicks instead of standard curlers to create a super-tight curl that became popular during the disco era.