October 8, 2010

Better Hair Styling Through Chemistry (?) – 1905 

On this day in 1905, a German hair stylist in London demonstrated the first “permanent wave.”

Karl Ludvig Nessler (Nestle) used a mixture of cow urine and water on the hair to break the bonds of the hair and then reform them in a new shape, molded around rods the hair had been wrapped around. His machine looked a bit like a cow-milking machine, because it was dangerous to have the caustic chemicals near the skin, so a complicated system of countering weights were suspended from a stand above the seated customer. (This procedure only worked on long hair because of the need to keep stuff away from the scalp. The photos here are of slightly later models.) The machine then heated up the hair to about 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). The procedure took about six hours.

Ridiculous, eh? How did he ever convince women to let him put cow urine on their hair, let alone the danger and the heat and the six hours???

By the way...

  • The first person Nessler used his method on was his wife—and it burned off all her hair and gave her scalp burns! When her hair grew back, he tried a slightly different procedure—and burned her hair off again. But the third time was the charm!

  • The chemicals and machines used changed (of course) to make perming less dangerous and time-consuming, and by the 1930s the perm had really caught on. The majority of middle class women and virtually all the rich and famous women permed their hair regularly, perhaps four times a year!

  • Thankfully, by 1938 someone invented the cold wave, which required no machine and no heat!

  • Nowadays there are alkaline and acid perms, endothermic and exothermic perms, digital perms and home perms—plus chemical straightening of the hair.

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