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?