Going through my photo albums recently, I became enthused about the hairstyles I’ve had since a youngster, as well as the hairstyles of my older sisters and my mother. Although I think I was rather a cute tyke, from puberty on, I’d have to say I had more “bad hair days” than “good hair days.”
Since I was a product of the 20th century, with all the modern shampoos, perms and gadgets to make hair prettier, I always felt the hairstyles of my mother’s were nicer.
The earliest family photo I found of Mom was when she was around 9 years old. Her hair was long, pulled off her forehead and secured by an immense bow in back. By 1915, Mom graduated from Kutztown High School with much the same style, except more of a fluff over her forehead. A large bow, on the back of her head, was still in style.
Pictures of Mom as a young mother and wife, still show long hair, with a bit of a swirl over the forehead, and tucked with pins into the shape of a bun atop her head.
To my oldest sister’s dismay, Mom brought the immense bows back into their hairstyles. Anita (now in her 80s) knowing how my mind works, said, “Mom did not take those bows from the cemetery. She would have considered that stealing!” I’m sure she’s right, but I did think it.
In browsing the photos, I only found one (early 40s) of my sister, Jannetta, in long Shirley Temple ringlets. I asked Jannetta how they were curled. She explained, “Mom set them in rags. She made strips of material about 10” long and 1” wide. She’d cut the strip half way up the middle. The narrower the strip, the tighter the curl. She’d take a strand of dampened hair, with the center of the rag folded over it. She’d wind the hair around the material until she’d reach the scalp. The loose ends of the rag were knotted. Sometimes I’d sleep in those rags.”
Since I couldn’t find any other sisters in ringlets, I asked why her. She stated, “I was the only one with a bit of natural curl in my hair. Besides that, Mom liked me best!” I agreed that could have been true about natural curls, but once I was born, I became Mom’s favorite child.
Both Jannetta and Anita recall going to Peggy’s Beauty Shop on Main Street, in Kutztown, when they were in their teens.
Anita tells the story: “We were so proud we could afford a perm. We were working at Phoebe Home, in Allentown, and had money to get a permanent. The whole process took a long time and the chemicals they used smelled awful. The machine itself looked something like the milking machine on a farm. Many long wires hung from a bar, which was above the head. The end of the wires had electric heated clamps. Peggy wrapped the hair from the end of a tress up to the scalp and clamped them. It burned and it hurt because the heat couldn’t be controlled. I tried to stay as still as possible so the heat clamps didn’t scald my scalp. It was not a fun experience! I think it cost about $2.00.”
Jannetta added, “I was so upset with my frizzy perm ‘cause next day I was going on a Sunday School picnic to Dorney Park.”
Jan Rader, a retired hair dresser, from Kutztown, has one of these old perm machines. She purchased this machine from the Hollywood Beauty School in Allentown, when she graduated. She converted that perm machine into a coat rack. Jan told me, “As a little girl, my grandmother treated me to my first perm at Peggy’s Beauty Shop.”
Although I never got a permanent wave at Peggy’s, I did get a few perms in my teens. The earliest photo I found of me with a tight, kinky perm was about 13 years old. Ugh!
In my day---late 40s and 50s--- long, straight hair was out. Most styles were short and curly perms.
The home perm kits ---Lilt or Toni---cost about $2.00, while beauty salon perms would be $15. Toni’s refills were $1.00. In these kits were different sized plastic rollers with rubber bands to clasp the hair in place. Papers from the kit were placed at the end of each tress of hair. The hair was rolled up to the scalp and rubber held it in place. The solution in the bottle didn’t smell good, but it was tolerable. If you didn’t want a tight, kinky perm, after the plastic curlers were taken out and hair rinsed, they could be set in larger plastic rollers.
I remember the campaign ads on TV for Toni: “Which twin has the Toni?” One twin had a beauty shop perm and the other a Toni. Lilt perms were advertised as “the prettiest hair in the neighborhood.”
Prior to getting home perms, I was using plain bobby pins to set my hair. I was 11 years old for my first bobby pin fiasco! I guess I was first learning as the curls went in all directions. I seemed to get the bobby pin knack by the time I was 15.
The way I did it was to take a small section of hair at the scalp and wind it around my finger, like a teeny bun. Next, very carefully, I slid it off my finger and secured it with a bobby pin. I continued this round and round my head in rows and in the direction of my face Even though I followed this procedure, the photos don’t look as if I ever learned the “how to” perfect it.
When I was in high school, on damp, rainy days, I kept bobby pins in my hair until I got to school. I’d cover them with a scarf. Once off the bus, I’d sprint for the bathroom, take out the bobby pins and brush them. Alas, one of my classes was across the street, in what is now the Kutztown Historical Society building. I hated this class because I had to go outside and my hair would flop in damp weather.
Another style that a few of my classmates wore was the pony tail if they had long hair. Often a colorful scarf was wrapped round the rubber band itself.
Soon after graduation and early marriage, another style came about---the beehive. This style was a lot of teasing, or back combing of hair, sprayed and smoothed into high mounds.
I suppose we were going somewhere special for me to work my hair into a beehive one day. I had decided to mow the lawn and ended up mowing over a bee’s nest in the ground. Some bees must have mistaken my hair for their nesting ground! I had quite a few bee stings and they couldn’t escape. I ran into the house and ran water through my hair to drown those darn bees. That ended the beehive phase for me.
I can’t imagine, over the years, how much money I’ve spend in purchasing the perfect shampoo, gels, dyes, cuts, perms etc. to try to look better. Finally, when heading into retirement age, I started thinking differently about hair. I decided I was going to grow the long hair I’ve always wanted. I did just that. I settled on one shampoo that I truly liked. Usually I wear bangs and pull the rest of the hair to the back and clip it. No more fuss.
I’ve finally come to peace with my hair. In the process I found, no matter what my hair looks like, I consider it a “good hair day!”
Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to raising children to humorous stories about her and her husband to everyday stories to season stories and more.