The combination of faulty electricity and chemicals made styling hair with heat a dangerous part of a woman’s beauty regime in the past (and sometimes the present).
For decades, the battle between straight or curled hair, long hair or short hair has raged on as new tools and products have inundated the market helped along by advertising condemning one style over the other.
The term perm brings to mind visions of big 1980’s styled hair but the first “perm” was actually developed by German hairdresser Charles Nestle in 1905. Nestle combined heat-curling hair with caustic chemicals to curl long hair, an alternative to wearing wigs. The first experiment on a woman’s hair took over six hours and used a set of 12 2-pound brass hair rollers which were heated to around 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Patented in 1888 by French hairstylist and inventor Alex-Ferdinand Godefroy, the hair dryer’s earliest ancestor was a dome-like apparatus affixed to “any suitable form of heater” and placed atop a woman’s head. Gas hair dryers such as Godefroy’s included a valve through which steam could escape, but lacked airflow. Thus, the early 20th century saw advertisements which encouraged women to connect the exhaust of a vacuum cleaner to a hair drying hose. Eventually, as electricity was developed, hand-held electric hair dryers were invented and popularized in the 1920s.
In the early 1900s, straight hair was marketed as unattractive and unfashionable and thus the first curling irons were developed. The earliest of these were heated over an open fire or in an oven, and ran a great risk of damaging a woman’s hair due to lack of heat control. In the 1920s, the iconic bob haircut associated with flappers encouraged young women to chop their curled locks go with shorter waves. Throughout the 1930s and 40s pin curls and victory rolls were popular, with teasing and beehives competing with long and straight tresses in the 1960s and 70s. All of these styles required a tremendous amount of complicated coiffing with dangerous tools and products composed of harmful chemicals to achieve their desired heights, shine, or structure.
Hair coloring in the United States has become a cultural phenomenon and an ever-changing aesthetic trend, but is a practice that poses serious health concerns to those being treated with and handling the dyes. Hairdressers constantly exposed to the chemicals which compose the dyes (such as ammonia and hydrogen peroxide) have a 5% greater chance of being diagnosed with bladder cancer. Some hair straightening products contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and allergen that can cause skin irritation, nausea and vomiting, and hair loss, making them a risk for both salon stylists and at-home users.
While technology in hair tools has come along way since the 1800s the modern usage of them is still not without some risk. Dying hair with bleach can lead to baldness and use of heat tools at too high temperature can lead to burning off sections of hair.
Learn more about the history of beauty trends and the lengths women have gone to achieve society’s standard of beauty. Check out the Women’s Museum of California’s exhibit, Beauty or Torture