Permanent Wave

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, several hairdressers discovered that by applying chemicals and heat to women's hair, they could create curls and waves that would last for days, weeks, or even months. These hairstyles were called permanent waves or simply permanents. Permanents brought the latest technology into the world of women's fashion and beauty, and, because the machines were located in shops, rather than the home, they made women's hair care into a social event rather than a private ritual.

A woman with hair styled in a permanent wave. Reproduced by permission of © .

A French hair stylist named Marcel Grateau (1852–1936) invented the first long-lasting hair waving technique in 1870. Grateau experimented with new ways of using a heated iron to curl hair until he came up with a method that created waves that remained in the hair for days. Modern women were eager to find ways to style their hair that took less time, and many began to have their hair "marcelled," as Grateau's process was called. In 1906 Charles Nestlé, a Swiss hairdresser working in London, England, invented a new and even more permanent way to style hair. His first permanent wave machine used gas to heat hair that had been wrapped around chemically treated pads. This actually caused the chemical composition of strands of straight hair to break down and re-form in curly strands, creating a wave that lasted for months. Later machines used electricity to heat the hair.

The early part of the 1900s was an exciting time of new inventions and new freedoms for women. People wanted to try modern ways of doing things, and they wanted the latest styles, in hair as well as in clothes. Though the early permanent wave machines looked very strange, with separate wires leading to each chemical-wrapped curl, they were the most modern, and many women wanted to try the new style. New stores called beauty shops began to open, offering haircuts, styling, and permanent waves. These shops created places for women to gather and socialize while their hair was done.

While those women with straight hair wanted permanent curls and waves, others with naturally curly hair wanted their hair straightened. An African American hairdresser named Marjorie Joyner (1896–1994) invented a new, more compact permanent wave machine that also worked to straighten very curly hair. Patented in 1928, the machine was a dome-shaped helmet that used electrical current to heat hair which was clamped in one-inch sections.


Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London, England: Peter Owen, 2001.

McCarthy, Laura Flynn. "The New Wave." Vogue (September 1989): 652–56.

Trasko, Mary. Daring Do's: A History of Extraordinary Hair. New York: Flammarion, 1994.

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