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

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.