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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/Behold the Perm

Air Date: Week of

This week, we have facts about the permanent wave. Ninety-six years ago, the world's first perm was an all-day affair, hot and smelly, but the end product was lasting curls.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Beck, "Devil’s Haircut" Remix, ODELAY (DGC, 1996)]

CURWOOD: Ninety-six years ago this week, Karl Ludwig Nessler placed an ad in London’s Hairdressers’ Journal. He invited leading hairdressers to "inspect and judge a lady’s hair waved permanently by his newly invented and greatly improved process that would withstand water, shampoo, and all atmospheric influences."

It was the world’s first perm. And Mr. Nessler accomplished the effect by winding hair tightly around brass rods that weighed as much as two pounds apiece, and connecting the curlers to an electric power source. The old shebang looked like a huge milking machine hung from the ceiling. And it worked by using heat and a highly alkaline solution to break the chemical bonds that give the hair its shape. Then, an acidic solution reformed the hairs bonds so it stayed curly permanently.

The perm’s popularity peaked in the 1960s. But last year, Americans still spent almost nine billion dollars on salon curls and hair straightening treatments. Studies say the chemicals used in today’s perms are relatively safe. The most typical adverse health effects are skin irritation and allergies. The search is on for a chemical-free perm recipe. But, so far, natural ingredients haven’t been able to hold their own against Mr. Nessler’s formula. And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Beck, "Devil’s Haircut" Remix, ODELAY (DGC, 1996)]



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