The History of Hair Perms

by Minnesota Jodi

Perms have come a long way, from hours and hours under a machine that could burn a person, to quick and painless.

The original perm was done with a pair of tongs that fit together and were heated on a stove. They knew the tongs were hot enough when it burned paper. Karl Nessler invented a new machine in 1905. His wife got to be his guinea pig. The machine had brass rollers that hung from a chandelier with counter weights to keep the rollers from touching the scalp. Sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) was applied to the hair and the brass rods were heated to 212°F. It took about six hours to complete the perm. Karl’s wife got to have her hair burned off and many scalp burns before he got the process just right.

Others had tried to improve on Nessler’s machine by making smaller rods, changing how the hair was wound, how the rods were suspended and trying other chemicals. These inventors and tinkers found that an alkaline chemical made of borax and ammonia worked best on the hair. By the 1930s, the vast majority of women were having their hair set on rollers once a week and permed every three months.

Wrapping wet hair to electrical equipment without any kind of grounding was the norm; however there were enough electrical accidents to make women worried. In 1931, Ralph L. Evens premiered his heatless system. It used a bisulfate solution that the stylist would apply at the salon. Then the client would go home and remove it the next day. After WWII, most of the old machines were replaced with the cold wave method, meaning no heated machines. It’s much like what we use today, but then it took six to eight hours.

In the 1970s came the acid perms. These were gentler and slower than alkaline perms. Acid waves are pretty much the norm for most perms today with some exceptions where we still use alkaline.

The latest and greatest is digital perms, which gives a loose wave look. It goes back to the old rod and chandelier perm machine, but it’s computerized. When it comes to innovations, I guess what comes around goes around.

Minnesota Jodi hails from Duluth Minnesota. She’s been an Arizonan for six years all in the White Mountains. She owns North Star Salon, LLC.