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Boomer’s Journal: Permanent wave solutions and orange concentrate cans

Take one look at your high school “senior portrait” and you will immediately remember what “hair era” you either embraced or succumbed to during your formative years, or more specifically, your high school years. You might recall what it took to get “the look” you wanted…and the endurance it took to “get there.”

Before we became seniors, we very likely had followed the habits and suggestions (insistence) of our mothers and our fathers…guys, in the ‘50s you possibly followed Elvis and by the early ‘60s, maybe Mickey Mantle.

Perhaps the boys in class had Brylcreem* at home or in their locker. You know, that feeling…”Brylcreem – A Little Dab’ll Do Ya! Brylcreem – You’ll look so debonair. Use more only if you dare – But watch out! The gals will all pursue ya – They’ll love to run their fingers through your hair!”

By the mid-to-late ‘60s maybe the guys in class were trying to grow out that crew cut because the English invasion changed everything. Moms and dads throughout the country were rolling their eyes as girls screamed and boys tried to have hair like the Beatles.

Lilt home permanent kit. Contributed photo

By then, you were hearing your father say you needed a “trip to the barber to lower your ears.” Or maybe it was your high school coach who insisted on seeing your ears if you expected to play on the team. Do you remember defending your long(er) locks of hair and sideburns? The Ed Sullivan Show might have had more influence than the coach in the locker room.

I remember my brother as he went through his stages of grooming – the cuts, the growing, the product, the coaches – the time spent in front of a mirror. He has a crew cut in his high school graduation portrait, and when he graduated from college four years later, he had grown it out.

My first recollection of not wanting to do anything with my hair – at all – was at a very early age… the Saturday night bath ritual, which included washing our hair. As mom tugged and pulled out every single snarl, we winced in pain and complained. Mom would then take a bit of hair and meticulously wind a few strands around her finger and stick a bobby pin through our scalp to keep that curl in place. Hundreds of bobby pins every Saturday night.

We eventually graduated from bobby pins to home permanents. You can probably smell it as I write this – a home perm with that special bottle of magical solution. As mom clipped off the tip of that plastic bottle full of toxic liquid and drizzled it on all of the permanent rods, we covered our face with a towel, closed our eyes as tight as we could, held our breath…and waited for our hair to die. The timed procedure was quite simple, and as we sat and waited during the established (according to directions) 15 minutes for our perm to “process,” we were clueless about the future “fall-out” that might result from that very liquid that was so liberally being poured on our roots.

For some odd reason, at the beginning of a school year, from about second-grade through the seventh-grade, my mother decided it was time for the annual perm, usually the week before the first day of school – and done in our own personal salon – the kitchen.

Things were fine all summer long, and all of a sudden, right along with shopping for that one new “first day of school” outfit, something had to be done about “that” hair. It would have a major effect on how successful our academic career for the year might go. Success or failure depended upon it.

The thought of going into town for such a procedure was out of the question, so out came the Toni** or the Lilt** home permanent kit that was likely purchased at the drug store in Elbow Lake. I personally preferred Lilt because it came out with a toxic solution that was foam (like foam shaving cream) instead of liquid.

Mom would wrap those plastic pink, blue and yellow permanent wave rods, one by one, in our hair. They still smelled of the chemical solution from the year before. THAT should have been our first clue to future damage. We valiantly tried not to inhale the fumes as mom would pour that bottle of solution on each plastic rod, wrapped with our hair. With one swift movement of the plastic bottle, any hope of growing our hair out for the entire school year was down the drain.

And the next morning, there I was, ready for the first day of school with one big head of frizz.

Sisters beauty “salon” open for business – Louise and Rachel give Marcia a perm in 1965. Contributed photo

By eighth-grade I had enough of any permanent solution; however, mom said if I wasn’t going to have curls, I certainly needed “a trim.” Yup, since the perm would be a thing of the past, I would succumb to the scissors held in my non-cosmetologist college sister’s ready hand. Chop. Chop. Chop. I ended up with quite a trim – as in little or no hair left. My other sister, however, did yield to the directions on the home perm box as I helped with the operation. Imagine the scene, two sisters giving a third sister a home permanent. Yikes. You can only imagine the results.

By ninth-grade I was still trying to grow out the horrors of the cut my sister gave me before the start of eighth-grade. Alas, my tresses were growing at a slower rate than my physical height.

By tenth grade I had managed to grow my hair to what would be considered almost “shoulder length” and by now, I had conceded to a life of sleeping on brush rollers every single night, not for any curl, but to try to get rid of any natural wave that might occur during my dreams. I rolled my hair every night as a precaution against “bed head” and to prevent accumulated oil in my scalp from making my hair flat. Oh, and as an attempt to be rid of that troublesome “cowlick” that I had inherited. Yes, we sacrificed a good night’s sleep – every night – as we rolled those brush or plastic rollers in our hair, wrapped a hair net around those rollers, and awkwardly tossed and turned throughout the night, trying to prevent a sore neck by morning. All for the sake of vanity.

Those were the years when another new craze started – using orange juice concentrate cans as hair rollers because we couldn’t find “curlers or rollers” big enough to get our hair stick straight. Over school lunch we discussed the feasibility of drinking orange juice for the sole purpose of creating “a full set of orange-juice-can-rollers.” Alas…anything it took for the sake of beauty.

Those were the years when the few and brave bent over an ironing board as friend or mother ironed her hair. Anything at all that would help us look like THAT GIRL – Marlo Thomas…or Love Story actress, Ali McGraw…or any James Bond girl for that matter. (We didn’t know Farrah yet). And by now, If your hair wasn’t long enough, or you couldn’t grow it out (remember that home perm magical solution?), luck had it that the era of “the fall” came into fashion. As long as you had a head band to cover the comb that held the “fall” in place on your scalp, you were good to go. For many, if you weren’t wearing your “fall,” you certainly packed it in your bag. It went everywhere with you.

And finally, wigs weren’t just for the Hollywood elite anymore. It seemed there was a solution for everything you either had, didn’t have, or wanted to have. Hair products of every kind seemed available. And yes, there were products for men too. All in the desire to go with the flow, whatever hair trend there was.

Toni ad. Contributed photo

Meanwhile, my dad was still washing his hair with “rain water” which we religiously saved with every rainfall throughout the spring, summer and fall (and yes, we melted snow in the winter) and religiously heated it up on the stove in a big kettle. Because that’s what you did in the ‘50s, ‘60s and the ‘70s. He said that rainwater was the healthiest thing there was for hair and you didn’t need another thing. No magical solution needed for him.

And while dad was satisfied with hot rain water, we eventually moved on to electric rolls and hair dryers at home (of all things!). No more sleeping on rollers. Yes, manufacturers in the hair industry were busy providing anything and everything it took for a new hair trend or era. There were even hair permanents for men. If you had curly hair, well, there was straightener. If you wanted your hair more blonde, there was Sun-In. If you wanted curls, well, those home perms were still around. If you wanted long hair, there was growing serum. If you wanted short hair, but also wanted long hair, there was a wig for you.

Hair. There’s even a Broadway musical about it. Whatever the case, and whatever direction your hair has blown in the wind, when you look at your senior portrait you know full well what was hip and what was a-happenin’…and what it took to get there.

* Brylcreem is a British brand of hair styling products for men, first created in 1928. The cream is an emulsion of water and mineral oil established in beeswax.

** The creation of the Toni Home Permanent Kit opened the door for women to get a “professional wave” at home. The other professional brand was Lilt, created by soap king Procter & Gamble. In 1938, Arnold F. Willat invented the cold wave, the precursor to the modern perm. It used no machines and no heat. The hair was wrapped on rods and a reduction lotion containing ammonium thio-glycolate was applied. In the 1970s acid perms were invented.

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