The Permanent Wave Machine - A Tangled Tale of Curls and Innovation
This picture shows a 1923 permanent-waving machine built by Icall for sale by Eugene Suter under the name “Eugene”. The 22 tubular heaters, designed in 1917 by Isidoro Calvete and patented by Suter in 1920, hung from the ‘chandelier’ by their wires, which also served to take the weight of the heaters. This type of heater could only be used for ‘root-winding’ of the hair – Louis Calvete, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the dawn of the 20th century, as fashion and beauty standards evolved at a rapid pace, a new invention emerged that would dramatically alter women’s hair styling for decades to come: the Permanent Wave Machine. This device, a brainchild of Karl Nessler, a German hairdresser, was designed to give women long-lasting curls, offering an alternative to the laborious and temporary methods of curling hair that prevailed at the time. The story of the Permanent Wave Machine is one of innovation, perseverance, and the complex relationship between beauty standards, technology, and the quest for personal expression.

Karl Nessler, also known as Charles Nestle in the United States, was driven by a vision to transform women’s hairstyling. Before his invention, achieving curls was a tedious process, often involving the use of heated rods or chemicals that were applied manually and offered only short-term results. Nessler saw an opportunity to create a more permanent solution and spent years experimenting with various techniques and materials. His dedication was not without its mishaps; legend has it that an early test on a woman resulted in a headful of singed hair, a testament to the trial and error inherent in the invention process.

Nessler’s final design, patented in 1909, was a contraption that looked as complex as it was revolutionary. The machine consisted of a series of rods heated by an electrical element, which were then wrapped around sections of hair. A chemical solution, usually a mixture containing borax, was applied to the hair to break down its structure and allow it to take on the desired curl. Once the hair was set around the rods, the machine would heat the strands, creating permanent curls after several hours. The entire process was time-consuming, often taking up to six hours to complete, and required the wearer to endure a somewhat uncomfortable experience with the bulky and somewhat intimidating machine.

Despite its cumbersome nature and the lengthy process it entailed, the Permanent Wave Machine quickly caught on. Women, driven by the desire for the fashionable curls that were all the rage, flocked to salons to undergo the transformation. The machine represented more than just a new hairstyle; it was a symbol of modernity and the evolving roles of women, who were increasingly asserting their independence and personal style.

The popularity of the Permanent Wave Machine also speaks to the broader context of the era, a time when electricity was becoming more widespread and its potential for personal and domestic use was just being realized. The machine was a product of this electric revolution, bringing the cutting-edge technology of the time into the beauty salon.

However, the journey of the Permanent Wave Machine was not without its knots and tangles. The process was not only time-consuming but also potentially damaging to the hair and scalp due to the heat and chemicals used. Reports of burns and hair breakage were not uncommon, reflecting the risks women were willing to take in the pursuit of beauty. Moreover, as the understanding of hair and its health evolved, so too did the methods of curling. The original machines and chemicals used were gradually replaced with safer, more effective methods, reflecting the ongoing evolution of beauty technology.

Today, the Permanent Wave Machine is a relic of the past, replaced by more modern and less hazardous methods of curling and styling hair. Yet, its legacy endures. It was a stepping stone in the ever-evolving pursuit of beauty and personal expression, a testament to the lengths to which people will go to conform with or defy the beauty standards of their time.

The story of the Permanent Wave Machine is a reminder of the complex interplay between technology, fashion, and identity. It reflects the human desire for self-expression and the constant quest for better, easier ways to achieve it. As we continue to innovate and redefine beauty standards, the tale of Karl Nessler and his machine continues to resonate, a curl in the long history of human creativity and the enduring quest for the perfect wave.



Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!