Random Thoughts

A girl's crowning glory

... hair care has certainly changed

Ann Robbins Talbot

I am a fan of black-and-white movies made in the 1940’s. The girls live in an all-girl rooming house as they work in the big city. Boy meets girl. Boy invites girl to the movies. Girl says no – she has to wash her hair. What a lame excuse. Why doesn’t she take a quick shower and go?

Then I began to think about the hair care I have experienced through my years. Not every home had a shower in the ‘40’s. We took baths and not every day. With my mother supervising, I soaped up my hair with the same bar of soap that washed the rest of me. Scooting down under the water, I rinsed the soap out in the now-not-so-clean bath water. The alternative shampoo was done standing on a kitchen chair and having my mother wash and rinse my hair in the kitchen sink where we also washed vegetables, dishes and silverware.

At some point the bar of soap was replaced by the bottle of family shampoo – bright green Prell. In magazines I saw beautiful drawings advertising Breck shampoo but we never bought any. Sometimes my hair was rinsed with beer or vinegar, perhaps to get all the soap out. But during summer vacation the cake of Ivory soap followed us into the lake for shampoos – Ivory, of course, because it floated.

The procedure that was most time-consuming was drying my hair. I was luckier than many since my hair was not thick or curly. This was the only time I did not envy thick or curly hair. Sometimes I just got my hair combed out and I sat still until it was dry. By junior high I had mastered the art of setting my hair with a handful of bobby pins holding pin curls. Since the bobby pins tended to fall out as the hair dried, a kerchief was needed to cover the lumpy head. I’m not sure which looked worse, the pin curls or the kerchief turban-style. Later on I used six white ribbed ankle socks to roll my hair in “rags”. It made a nice, soft page boy, more comfortable to sleep on than the bobby pins.

And we haven’t come to the actual drying yet. The hand-held dryer-shaped-like-a-pistol is a fairly recent invention. Sun and fresh air used to be enough. But one day my father brought home a red heat-bulb that screwed into a floor lamp. I could sit under it and read, cutting much of the drying time. I then progressed to a huge plastic bag, worn like a hat, that inflated into a circle of hot air tethered to a fan much too loud for reading a good book. One addition to the drying process was a curling iron. With much caution it was heated over the front burner of the stove and the degree of heat was pure guesswork. If it was not hot enough, no curl would form. If it was too hot, I could smell burnt hair. It was only good for touch-ups.

I lived with braids for many years, but my mother thought a permanent was a rite of passage to first grade. In a salon in Haverhill while we were on summer vacation, I was hitched to an amazing beauty contraption. Each metal curler on my head reached its source of electricity high above by means of an individual wire. There I sat totally still smelling the chemicals, the heat, the burning hair. It not only looked like a torture chamber, it was one. I can’t imagine what my mother was thinking. Did it improve my five-year-old looks? I don’t think so because we never did it again.

The final indignity to my hair was the Toni home permanent. Its ad campaign was classic. Two identical photos of a model were posed above the question “which twin has the Toni?” letting us assume that one hairdo was professionally done and one was done in the kitchen. If a shampoo took all evening, a home permanent took nearly all day. The chemicals used for relaxing my hair to accept dozens of tiny curlers smelled awful. And the chemicals for restoring my hair to its original condition smelled as bad. And not just on perm day. The house reeked for days. Subsequent shampoos each smelled like a Toni. I am not surprised to hear that a suspected bomb maker was buying his chemicals in a beauty supply store.

What is my present hair regimen? Since my gray locks are getting a bit thin on the top, my motto has become “no heat, no chemicals”. I have quit body perms and hand-held blowers. It’s a wash-and-wear haircut for my crowning glory.


October 2, 2009


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