Boomers Experienced the Home Perm

Permanent curls have been around since the 1870s when Marcel Grateau invented two-sided irons that could heat and curl hair. Since it was a hand-done operation, the risk of burning the scalp and skin was great, and the process took an inordinate amount of time. Further inventions in the early 1900s made it more practical for a salon to perform perms with machines that suspended heating elements from a stand to reduce the risk of burning. The process still took several hours.

By the 1930s, it was determined that alkaline-based chemicals, when applied to the hair, would break down the bonds in the hair’s protein. Then the hair could be wrapped around a shape and heat applied to achieve a curl. This short, tight-curl look is the basis of the quintessential 1930s hairstyle we see in old movies and ads.

In the 1940s, Toni was the first company to release a home perm kit. These kits contained a chemical agent that had to be put on washed hair and left on for a designated amount of time. After that, hair was wrapped around curlers and heat was applied, after which a neutralizing agent was applied to hold the resulting curls. This made the process cheaper than going to a salon, and took less time. Chances are our mothers used this product shortly after World War II. In the 1950s, other companies followed suit with their own products.

Mister Boomer, being of the male gender, never had a home perm. His experience with home perms is strictly as an observer when his mother or sister used Push Button Lilt. With houses being much smaller and having only one bathroom, one family member giving themselves a home perm could could seriously disrupt the regular ebb and flow of a household.

As far as Mister Boomer was concerned, whenever his mother and sister had home perms, it was not cause for celebration. Walking past the bathroom door, he observed his sister sitting in a chair in front of the mirror, with a towel draped around her shoulders. Mister B’s mom would apply the vile concoction to his sister’s hair which had been rolled around foam cushions. Whatever chemicals were involved stunk to high heaven and lingered for hours. In Mister Boomer’s home, his mother and sister would use the product simultaneously, doubling the agony, not to mention tying up the bathroom for what seemed an eternity. In the end, they were happy with their curls but Mister B would have preferred to breathe … and uncross his legs.

This commercial mentions the exact push-button foam Lilt used by Mister B’s mother and sister.

As the 1960s progressed, straight hair became more popular than curly hair, so home perms waned in the Boomer household, as they did across the country. A decade later the TV show Charlie’s Angels gave the industry a huge boost when actresses Farah Fawcett and Jacyln Smith sported voluminous hair with prodigious curls.

By the 1980s curly hair was seriously “in” again for men and women. Some men even jumped on the home perm bandwagon. That is not something that happened in Mister B’s experience or with his friends, so he doesn’t know if the same products smelled as bad in the ’80s as they did in the ’60s.

What memories do “Lilt” or “Toni” home perms bring back to you, boomers?

Female Boomers and Their Hair Apparent

Beauty products, and in particular hair care products for women, started to come into a class all their own in the 1950s. Prior to then, there were some traditional brands that the average woman used that were both domestic and imported, but in the first of the boomer decades, new companies cropped up and aggressive marketing campaigns were initiated to capture the attention of young boomers and their mothers. Most importantly, these products were priced for affordability and were readily available in drug and discount stores.

In Mister Boomer’s experience with these products — through use by his mother, aunts and younger boomer sister — these beauty products fell mainly into two categories: hair products and perfume and cologne (which will be covered in the future).

Hair Care
In Mister Boomer’s household, his mother dictated the shampoo choice in his early years. Like other women of her day, she preferred Breck or Prell shampoo. A bottle of Breck or the glass bottle of Prell, then later the plastic tube when it became available, was ever-present at the edge of the bathroom tub. Mister Boomer recalls the Breck commercial and how it came in three formulas based on normal, dry or oily hair. The ornate Olde English letter “O” on the bottle indicated Mister B’s mom had purchased the oily hair formula.

Breck had actually been one of the early brands that the grandmothers of boomers would recognize. Appearing in 1908, it was one of the first shampoos manufactured in the U.S. Breck Girls ads started appearing around 1936; the artist, Charles Sheldon, preferred to draw “real” women rather than models. In 1957, Robert Williams Williams took over for Mr. Sheldon. It was his pastel drawings that so impressed a young Mister Boomer, a budding young artist himself. He would gaze at the Breck Girls on the backs of the family magazines like Look, Life and Good Housekeeping. Not only were the idealized women beautiful — and with exquisite hair — but the pastel drawings exhibited artistic technique which was something to aspire to. In 1963, the company was sold to American Cyanamid, but the Breck Girls campaign continued until the death of Mr. Williams in 1976. By the mid-60s, Mr. Williams was drawing models rather than “real” women, though he attempted to add a bit of their individual personalities into each drawing as befitted the age.

The family all used one bottle of shampoo until it was gone. Mister B recalls not liking Breck very much at all, so it was a welcome change when Prell appeared. He recalls that it had a funny smell, but could lather like there was no tomorrow. It also left a slightly floral smell in his hair that lingered for a little while; that was not a particularly favorite trait for a product a boy wanted to sport.

The Aberto Culver Company was one of those formed in the first boomer decade. Leonard Lavin borrowed $400,000 to buy a hair conditioning formula invented by a scientist named Alberto, and built his company around his flagship product — Alberto VO5 — in Chicago in 1955. He immediately embarked on an aggressive television campaign, a risky move for many reasons in the early days of TV. The campaign worked, and by 1958, it was the number one product in its niche.

Mister Boomer recalls his mother using the product on occasion, which meant there were some elementary school days when Mister B had VO5 slicking his hair rather than Brylcreem. Mister B doesn’t recall his sister ever using the product, but both his grandmother and aunt always had a tube visible in their bathrooms. Consequently, in his mind, this product was intended more for older women than growing female boomers.

Hair always reflects the styles of the era, and certainly the boomer decades of the 1950s and 60s were no exception. Perhaps no female hair product can better represent the 50s than hair spray. High on the charts of top-selling hair sprays was Aqua Net. A true product of the boomer age, Aqua Net was an American product that was first released in the early 1950s. Right from the start it was an ideal fit to hold the popular bouffant and beehive styles of the day. The women in Mister B’s life used it, especially his mother. But from a young guy’s perspective, it didn’t make any sense to shellac hair to a shell-like consistency. A couple of decades later, Mister B was taught to use the stuff as a spray fixative for charcoal drawings. At less than two dollars a can, it was much cheaper than art fixatives.

Finally, in one of those strange categories of products that men rarely understand, there was Dippity-do. This gooey stuff was sold in a squat, clear jar, presumably so you could see the bubbles inside the gel. For a while, a jar took up residency on top of the toilet tank in the Mister Boomer household. He thinks his mother used it more than his sister, but there it sat. To a young boomer boy it was a mysterious thing that looked more like a science experiment than a hair care product. The TV ads seem to have been constantly playing, and it was evident the company was trying to appeal to a younger audience with their young models and groovy type used for the product packaging.

To a growing boomer boy, female hair products were a strange, off-putting world. Older neighborhood boomer girls would act as babysitters for Mister B and his siblings every now and then, wearing huge curlers and high hair drenched with products. His mother, being from an earlier generation, dabbled in the new products, but when push came to shove, she remained a woman of her own era. Mister B’s sister was a couple of years younger, so by the time she reached her teenage years, softer hair was coming in and there was less reliance on hair products to complete one’s style. She was more the Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific age than the Aqua Net age.

What about your experiences, boomer ladies? What female hair products did you or your siblings use?