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Inside the heated history of the permanent wave machine

April 7, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Pennsylvania Treasures

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Through the course of time, humans have cut it, shaved it, grown it out, washed it, dried it, colored it, curled it and yes, even made jewelry out of it. People have always looked for new things to do with their hair.

This permanent wave machine, selected as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure by CAP curator Diana Zeltmann, offers a glimpse into the early 20th century, when permanents or “perms” were the new, hit style. The family of Mildred Bierman Bevan donated this machine to the State Museum in 2008. After graduating from Wyoming High School in 1933, Bevan attended Empire Beauty College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. One year later, she opened Mildred’s Beauty Shop in Wyoming, Pa. Bevan eventually relocated to Scotch Plains, N.J., where she continued operating her beauty shop into the 1970s. The circa 1935 Duart-manufactured machine from Mildred’s Beauty Shop is now part of the State Museum’s Community and Domestic Life collection. San Francisco-based Duart was a popular brand and was said to have been the choice of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

While this machine is rooted in modern times, the permanent wave hair style traces its origins to the late 19th century. One of the first popular permanent wave styles was the Marcel Wave, created in the Paris salon of Francois Marcel (who may have also gone by the name Marcel Grateau). In 1872 Marcel invented a way of waving the hair, almost flat against the head, that could withstand the outside elements for more than just a day. Flat irons, which heated the hair, helped to create this style that was fashionable well into the 1900s.

Karl Nessler, aka Charles Nestle, ushered in the next era of long-term curls. Nestle, a German man who started cutting and styling hair early in life, went on to have his own salon in London. In 1905, he started dabbling in ways to create a long term curl and, through the use of a human guinea pig (who just happened to be his wife), Nestle created the first true permanent hair waving machine. This machine used a combination of chemical processing and heated rods to create a curl that would last. Though it worked, his initial invention was clunky and the rollers, being brass, were so heavy and hot they would often burn the woman’s hair and scalp to the point of hair loss. He kept making improvements, and in 1909 received a patent for a machine that used counterbalances attached to an overhead, chandelier-like apparatus that reduced the chance of burning.

The first U.S. patent for a permanent wave machine was given to Marjorie Joyner in 1928. Joyner, an African-American woman who graduated from a predominantly Caucasian beauty school, lived in Chicago and owned a beauty salon. While cooking dinner one night, Joyner unknowingly came upon a way of improving Charles Nestle’s design. Looking at the rods that went inside her pot roast, she realized heating from the inside out would be a great way to curl or straighten a woman’s hair. After spending several years perfecting her idea, which consisted of wires hanging from a hood with rods that were heated via electricity, Joyner obtained her patent, making her the first female African-American to do so.

Today, getting a “perm” is not quite so intimidating. Using an all chemical process with no electrical heating required, you are free to move about the room while you wait for your hair to set and curl. No cords, no big bulky machine and no electrical burns.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.