My mother, Josie, operated a beauty shop for 20 years or so, and until I was about 12 years old, this is how my sister Joan and I used to get our “permanent waves”.
The procedures for setting up, winding the hair, applying the chemicals, attaching the electrical rods, timing and cooking the hair, and cleaning up afterwards was probably similar in complexity to the execution of criminals in the electric chair. And, like electrocution, it was something you didn’t want to have done frequently.
We never got a permanent oftener than once per year. This is because the process turned our hair into frizzy steel wool and it took all year for it to relax, at which time Mother would do it all over again.
Mother had naturally curly hair herself so she never really had a chance to experience the ordeal on her own. Instead, she went about the task with gusto and good will. One time she even did it to one of my little brothers who suffered lifelong post-traumatic stress as a result. He was still talking about it 50 years later to anybody who would listen. Mom kept trying to tell us “You have to suffer to be beautiful.”
This form of torture during the 1930s was eased out by a fabulous new discovery called The Cold Wave. The Cold Wave was the cosmetology breakthrough of the century. It allowed straight hair to become curly without heat and electricity. And without as much frizz. My mother and the ladies who came to the shop were beside themselves with joy, and so were Joan and I. The only real drawback was that we couldn’t wash our hair for several days after and until then, we smelled like sauerkraut juice.
It wasn’t at first though. Until she was in 9th grade, Josie would only allow her hair to be combed in two different styles. The usual way was pulled back tightly into French braids which ended in long pigtails. Think Amish colonies. The second which she would occasionally accept, involved a pony tail worn like a geyser gushing out over her left ear.
Josie’s wardrobe in those days consisted entirely of garments purchased in the Boy’s Department. Any effort to get her into a dress was met with ferocious opposition. When she was 14, she was junior bridesmaid in her sister Elizabeth’s wedding, and at her insistence, instead of a gown, I made her an alternative pair of satin pants and top.
Right after that though, hormones, the opposite sex, or high school influence kicked in. The big makeover was launched and has never concluded.
I think Josie is a blonde but no one really remembers for sure. Her hairstyle, color, and presentation vary from week to week, sometimes from day to day. So does her wardrobe and accessories. Just when she becomes recognizable, it’s time to get changed and we start over.
At least hair is easier to manipulate now than it was during earlier eras. To show you what I mean, check out all the hairstyles you may catch Josie wearing.