By Allister Townson-Muse
At the recent Museum open house, I wandered throughout the isles viewing all of the unique exhibits on display. One in particular caught my eye. At first glance, I thought it was a bizarre chandelier. No. Could it have been a prop from the 1953 movie “War of the Worlds”? Wrong again! After further research, I discovered that it was a 1930s era (hair styling) Permanent Wave Machine. The machine on display at the White Pine County Museum was donated by Edna Server and was one of thousands manufactured between 1929 and 1940 by the “DUART Company“ based out of San Francisco.
Prior to this revolutionary new device, women had to use a flat iron to create the “Marcel”, the fashionably new French hair style, which laid flat against the head but lasted only two days. But, risking possible baldness and electrocution, women could finally have that stunning hairdo that they long admired- worn by the leading ladies of Hollywood. Gone, were the tin cans and clothes irons used to tame curly hair, as well as rollers, pin curls and rags typically used to force straight hair to curl. Finally, the best of both worlds!
German hair stylist Charles Nestle, operating out of his London salon, began experimenting with various ways to extend the time hair would hold a curl. With the assistance of his wife, (who endangered her hair and scalp) he designed the first ever permanent wave machine, earning a patent in 1909. But the process required the hair to be wrapped around brass rollers, which were quite large and heavy. So heavy, in fact they would burn the woman’s hair and scalp to the point of hair loss.
Additional modifications were made that included a stand that suspended a chandelier type halo over the head. This “halo” had 15 to 25 electrical wires that hung around the head. The wire ends had a metal plug that attached to the brass roller. Counterbalances or suspension cords were also added, that suspended the heavy rollers, reducing the chance of burning. Other improvements included the handy fuse replacement port (used repeatedly throughout the day due to excessive heat) and the automatic cord absorbers that tucked the electrical cords closer to the top of the halo. The large warning light, recessed into the halo, glowed bright red when events took a turn for the worse. Even with all the modifications, the entire apparatus still resembled a metal jellyfish.
In 1928, Marjorie Joyner was awarded the first U.S. patent for the permanent wave machine. She was the first African-American woman to receive such an honor. Mrs. Joyner had been a traveling representative for “Madame Walker Hair Products” and had received numerous complaints about hair permanents not lasting. As the tale goes…. she was preparing a pot roast for dinner and observed the rods heating the roast from the inside. She took this idea and expanded upon it to create smaller metal rods that were attached by clips to electrical wires. After the damp hair was wrapped around the metal rod and the clips were snapped over the rods, the machine was powered on, heat adjustment was set between 200°F and 220°F and the curling began.
The new design was such a hit with women that more than a dozen companies went into mass production around the country. They were produced for hair salons from 1929 until the mid-40s. In 1920s American, there were only 5,000 beauty shops, but with the arrival of new “Beauty Treatments”, that number jumped to 40,000 by the late 1940s. Even during World War II, beauty parlors still made a healthy profit. The cost for such artistically permed hair ranged from $1- $5 at the neighborhood beauty parlor, but the more upscale salons of New York and Hollywood charged the scandalous price of $15 dollars. A lot of money to spend in Depression era America. Getting a perm was typically an all-day event for the fashion conscious woman of 1930. During the Permanent Wave Machine glory days, most women never knew that the perm was referred to as a “pocket perm” by the beauty operators. Due to the high temperatures and chemicals being used, it would cause the hair to break off during processing. The hair stylist would covertly slip the burnt and broken lock of hair into her pocket. With the advent of chemical processing, the Permanent Wave Machine was soon left to history. People throughout the centuries have twisted, tortured, greased and glued their hair – all for the sake of youth and beauty.
Almost all of the items on display have been donated by the citizens of White Pine County in honor of family members who have passed away. They have been freely given to preserve a bit of history and to teach future generations. As the old saying goes, “if you don’t know where you’ve been, then you won’t know where you’re going.”
The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 10:00am to 3:00pm. Admission is $3 per person and children 5 and under are free. Bring your family to the White Pine County Museum. Show your children and grandchildren the unique treasures on display and see the history of our town, state and country. Spend a day making memories and telling tall tales to your children.