The Permanent Wave

The Permanent Wave

Phyllis Lifestyle 30 Comments

The other day, I was at my hairdresser when I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. I saw a home permanent kit and was immediately transported back to my childhood days when my sister and I sported matching curls. I’m sure many of you remember spending hours at the mercy of your mother’s Toni home permanent kit. Almost more memorable is the distinct smell that seemed to follow you for days!

Hair perms were not always such a smelly affair. They were a trend that began in the late 1800s with the invention of crimping tongs. Really, who thinks of these things? A German, named Charles Nestle, improved on the crimping tongs by developing heated rollers, which he combined with a chemical hair treatment. In 1909, he patented the first permanent wave machine.

Of course, cold wave perms became popular in the 1930s. These perms didn’t use machines or heat and were safer than the high heat required with Nestle’s methods. The cold wave perms gave way to the acid perms and stinky chemicals of the 1970s. Different styles and makes of these machines have made their way across the world and into many of our lives. The methods of achieving perfect curls have changed dramatically over the years, but anytime I see (or smell!) permanent lotion or chemicals, I’m reminded of hours spent primping and laughing with my mother and sister.

Did you ever have a memorable perm experience?

Comments 30

  1. I had really thick but straight hair and had many perms as a child, whether my hair was long or short. My mom always did them and they turned out just fine. I have no memories of my hair being fried. Guess I was lucky! I continued to perm my own hair (with a little help from my daughter who put the “solutions” on) until I was about 46. Since then (I’m now 69) I have worn it straight and blow it dry. I do NOT miss perming my hair or enduring the smell! I’m also glad that I’ve always been able to fix my own hair and don’t have to rely on going to the salon!

  2. I am laughing out loud!!! I remember my Mother giving me a perm when I was about 8 years old (in the 1950’s). It was so tight I could hardly get a brush through my hair. I can still remember that smell, it was like rotten eggs. Oh my, this brought back some funny memories!

  3. Yes, I got the permanent not called Perm. The smell , the dripping down back and in face. Oh Lord I just wanted to hid the next day. Visions of the Clariol girl was shattered with one look in the mirror. Ok who remembers Prell. Shampoo.?Think emerald green Thick stuff! I have tried many hair sprays the $16 a can etc. but to this day I still prefer Aqua Net. Yes it is still out there. Bottom shelf in my Walmart Take hope Robin W.
    I better get ready for work so I better take my Spoolies out my hair
    Thanks for the hair Flash back!!

    1. Spoolies? I thought they all fell off the earth! Yes I remember Prell and the commercial with the pearl slowly sinking to the bottom. My late sister-in-law used to say Prell was the worst shampoo for your hair…she was a beautician. How about Gee your hair smells terrific??? I think the Vermont Country Store still sell that.

  4. Oh my, Phyllis – thanks for the laugh and memory. When I was about 5 my grandmother and her sister surprised my mother by giving me a perm! Momma was furious, I was oblivious. All I remember was having really bushy hair. Yes, that smell is s real memory stirrer. Always a pleasure hearing from you

  5. I have always had curly hair. Sometime before I was 5, for some reason, my aunt gave me a “Tonette”. I remember I kept saying, “I have curly hair! I don’t need this!” But being a little girl, no one took notice of what I said. I hated the process and the outcome! While I was a teen, I wore the long straight hair that necessitated huge rollers and juice cans each night. How did we sleep?!
    I had my hair cut in my early 20’s (1974) and never looked back! When I want to give my hair some “lift” , my curling iron and hairspray work wonderfully well. I do wish I could find some Final Net or Aqua Net for a great hold!

  6. Phyllis,
    Thank you for the reminder about perms. It seems we all have had experiences with them. Because so many wrote about having baby fine, thin hair I want to speak for some of the rest of us. My hair is medium coarse, dark brown and has great “body”. When hair dressers speak of body they mean a bit of curl. The “body” in my hair is a slight wave all over. It is not curly, it just turns slightly into waves.

    When I was in my 40s my hair was so thick and long that when I went for a Cold Wave -1970s-, Clarisse had to cut the top to about four inches long so that all of the hair could be curled or there was not enough room on my head for all of the rollers. I curled well but sometimes it took longer that the baby fine variety.

    I don’t recall its being an ordeal, it just took a lot of time and keeping it in that style was almost like having a part time job, as I combed it out each night, re-did it every morning and had to get it set twice a week. The sides and back were combed into a French Twist and the shorter hair on top was combed back and and up, blended with the rest. My husband loved it that way. As I was doing a lot of TV interviews and poetry readings all over the state on my books it was worth the effort to keep it in a becoming style.

    Now half way through my 80s it is much thinner but can still be fluffed up to look thicker and is salt and pepper colored with a distribution of which looks as if I had streaks put in. I never have had it tinted. I have enjoyed all the other “permanent” stories. Maybe you’ll do one about dyeing hair, or would that be too revealing of necessary secrets?

  7. I called my hairdresser in October saying, “What would you think about doing a perm?” Her reply, “WHHHHHAAAAAT?” My go-to mid-length bob always looks heavy and tired, so telling her I wanted a “mussed” look, we did it. I LOVE IT! She blows it dry and then sections it off using the curling iron. After the curls cool, she musses it, and I’m good to go for a week. Listen to your heart and embrace change.

  8. My Mother was a hairdresser in the 40’s and 50’s but quit work when she had her first and only child – ME – and never went back. I probably had six or seven Toni perms and for the most part, they turned out okay. But in my second grade school picture, she had gotten carried away cutting my hair, then followed the cut with a Toni. I have hardly any hair in that picture except for a few curls on top of my head! My hair is very fine and lifeless and I wear it straight but I’ve been giving some thought to having a perm again. It was so much easier for me. For years, Mother gave her friends perms so I grew up with that smell. Oh by the way, she kept the “permanent wave machine” for years after she sold her shop. It looked like some sort of torture device!

  9. Reading your comments took me right back to the salon (I mean Beauty Shop) my grandmother went to once a week without fail. Every once in a while from the time I was about 5 on, I would go along with her so that I could get a perm. I remember the smell and the tears it would bring to my eyes. As if the perm was not enough, every Sunday I would sit while my mother “did” my hair complete with banana curls on top of my head. Oh how times have changed. Now I spend hours having my hair straightened. The things we do in the name of beauty!

  10. Just let me say, TGF curing irons. I have had almost all of the results mentioned except melted hair. My hair refused to curl no matter what was done to it. Today when I want curls I use a professional crying iron and a can of hairspray. It works and I no longer have to endure the smelly perms. Whew!

  11. Oh, dear, yes! In my late 30s and married, both of us working so money was really not an issue, I decided to get a salon perm. My husband decided the cost was too high and vowed he could give me a home perm. What was I thinking?! I allowed him to sway me and one weekend at our vacation condo we undertook the first home perm I’d had since the last one my mother had given me in college when I swore I’d never have another. Of course, rolling is the key, and he couldn’t. I had areas that were straight, other areas that were like cotton candy. It was so bad I actually was attacked by hysterical laughter. I got as much cut off as possible. The cost of salon perms never ever came up as an issue again!

  12. Boy does this bring back not so found memories. My mother wanted me to wear short curls all the time. I believe she thought I could manage my hair better with short curls. I remember staying all day at the beauty salon just to get those short curls. I hated them. It wasn’t until I could convince my mother that I could put my longer straight hair in a pony tail to keep it under control, did she let up on the perms. Now, I have and always will have straight hair, like it or not, ha.

  13. Boy, what a lot of memories! Add me to the list of straight, baby fine haired girls. My mother tried giving me Tonettes too when I was in elementary school. Toni’s and even Lilt’s when I was older. Nothing much happened except a bit of frizz which promptly went limp again in a matter of weeks. I’ve tried a few professional perms in the past few years to no avail. But at my age I’m quite used to dealing with straight hair! Just a note here…my late husband used to say “why are they called PERMANENTS? They are just TEMPORARIES! Makes sense to me.

  14. Oh, it is something you never forget! I had a couple bad ones I remember – a Shirley Temple perm when I was small and a perm in junior high where my Mom permed my bangs so they flipped up – it was so awful and I have the school picture to prove it. Last time my Mom gave me a perm! I had others in the 80s when they were popular, but not home perms!

  15. I have no great memories of perms! When I was a child, my mother’s friend, who did later become a licensed beautician, used to do herself and her three daughters and my mother and me — and the rollers were so tight our eyes were bugged out! Later as an adult, my mother’s neighborhood lady at her basement “beauty shop” gave me a perm and totally fried my hair. This was in the middle of a nasty divorce when I needed all the self confidence the world could offer! So — no more perms for me!!!

  16. Oy! Perms! I have wavy hair and really had no business getting a perm. My sister gave me an at-home perm which meant it was not done properly. My hair was pure frizz.

    To fix this problem, I followed the directions from my friend’s mom’s magazine which advocated an “ancient Egyptian method”: namely, flour and water in a paste.

    So I, being 13, decided that it sounded good and I covered my frizzy hair with wet flour!

    Sooooo, how did I get that “glue” out? We had to call a chemist. I ended up lying in a bathtub with laundry detergent and water, combing out my hair under water. I wore clothes. It was bad.

    Alas, it wasn’t the last perm I ever had. That came about 10 years later. Yikes. It was professionally done and didn’t look bad. But really, what were we thinking?!

  17. Oh I remember letting my aunt give me a perm at 17 years old! It was so curly! Not the look I was going for!!! Then they had me put mayonnaise in my hair with a plastic bag on my head trying to relax my hair some!! Oh the smell!!! It took my hair forever it seems to grow out and for the perm to go away!! I did go years later to a beauty shop to try again!! Much much better! Oh the memories!!!!

  18. When I was about 5 years old, my Mother took me to a salon for an “electric” perm, which looked like wires with curlers attached at the end, hanging down from a coat rack. ( I have even found a photo of this online)
    It was the first time I EVER had curly hair, and unlike most of the previous replies here, I loved it!
    She even took me to a studio for a professional photograph.
    My hair is very straight- any of you remember Buster Brown in the heel of shoes? That’s how all my grade school photos looked.
    I used to do my own home perms but they never lasted, and my short hair was always coming out of the rods. Now I have a wonderful beautician who gives me a perm about every 2 months, and I still love it.

  19. Like others here, I too had the pale blonde, stick straight, baby fine hair. I remember my mother giving me a Tonette perm (the ad said “Tonette, with the younger woman in mind!”). Years later we were looking at pictures and I asked why my bangs were so short. She had burned them off with the Tonette!

  20. I have always had curly hair. As a child, many of my friends had perms for their hair. I asked my mom to take me and of course she explained that I didn’t need a perm. However, I persisted and she said, the next time I give myself a perm, I will give you one also. Bless her heart, she rolled my hair on those tiny little rollers and I thought I was really having a perm. Due to my curly hair, rolled on those tiny rollers – I looked as though I had received a perm! Thanks so much for the memory.

  21. When I was 16 years old my mother talked me into getting a perm. I had resisted for months. Her arguments were: I could have it done at a salon and “now-a-days” (1961) the curls were not tight at all! Well I finally relented, but the part about tight curls was not exactly accurate. I did not like the perm at all. But, of course, I just had to wait for it to grow out. That year for my 16th birthday my mother had my portrait taken. To this day I do not like that picture of me and I have never had another perm.

  22. The picture with your essay made me chuckle!!
    Like Lidy, I also have naturally curly hair; thus, I only remember having two permanents in my life. Although they were longer ago than I am willing to admit, I certainly have not forgotten the distinctive fragrance. Looking back, I suspect that Mother must have purposely not left the mixture on too long because I don’t recall that my hair was dramatically different after my “perm.”
    At the opposite end of the perm were college friends who set their hair on orange juice cans and a roommate who used her steam iron on her hair. It was quite a sight to see her hair spread out on the ironing board!
    Thank you, Phyllis. As always you have helped us remember fond times with family and friends! We are blessed to call you friend…

  23. Oh boy, do I remember! I too, had straight, blonde, fine hair and my Mom always wanted to add body to it too. I still cringe at my 6th grade school photo when looking through old albums. That perm really went awry big time!

  24. I have very straight, fine blond hair, and my mother was determined to “give it some body.” I endured many perms. My LAST perm was the most memorable. Mom rolled my bangs really tight. When the timer went off, I realized my bangs were no longer attached to my head. She had literally burned off my bangs. All I had was some stubble and red, flakey skin. She kept telling me, “I can’t believe I burned your bangs off!” Neither could I!! I was the one overwhelmed. We still laugh about this today. Any time she complains about her hair being “flat,” I offer a home perm! What in the world were we thinking to put that stuff on our heads?

  25. I remember my mom winding up my hair on all of those tiny tiny rods for my perms at home. And, what about those horrible rubber caps with tiny holes so a crochet hook could be able to pull out hair to be bleached! Ouch!

  26. I was blessed with very curly hair when I was younger, so I never had a perm. But I do remember the smell, as many of my friends had me give them a Toni perm, not all to a spectacular result!

    The curling iron is something I’m much more familiar with. I used it myself, and my girls. They too could singe off a hank of hair in a few minutes {!} and caused endless grief for one daughter right before a prom. 😉

  27. Phyllis-
    Thank you for reminding me. This made my day I am going to buy a kit so I can smell it.
    My only bad memory was when it seemed to melt my hair. It was destroyed. Needless to say I was more careful from then on.

  28. After my dad died and we had gone to the funeral home and all, my mom and I were kind of lost. I took her for a perm. She was always insecure about her hair and it was a way to pamper her. I am so glad I did it. The night before his funeral, I pinned up her hair, something I hated to do, but it was hard for her. The day after his funeral she had an epileptic seizure and died a couple of weeks later. I haven’t gotten a whiff of any perms lately, but I am sure it would make me think immediately of my mom.

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