On October 8, 1905 in London, German-born hairdresser Karl Nessler carried out the first successful public demonstration of a permanent hair wave process. Nessler applied sodium hydroxide to the long hair of Katherine Laible, wrapping sections of it around a dozen or so 2-pound brass rollers electrically heated to 212˚F. He then suspended the rollers above Laible’s head from an elaborate chandelier contraption so she wouldn’t be burned as she waited the six hours necessary for her new do to be done.
The demonstration was promising and it led to a 1909 patent held by Kessler who continued to improve his permanent wave machine up until he was subjected to internment during World War I. After the interruption to his career, Nessler immigrated to the US, changed his name to Charles Nestle, and grew a successful hairdressing business that included branches in major cities across the country.
But as far as I’m concerned, Charles Nestle is not the hero in this story. That title belongs to Katherine Laible, his incredibly supportive wife. Because before the successful demonstration of 1905, in addition to the chemical and heat experimentation on wigs, there had been at least two previous attempts to put permanent waves into a woman’s locks. Katherine was the guinea pig then, too.
And at least twice she wound up bald, with painful burns on her scalp. Obviously she was a much better wife than I am, because she kept letting him try. I often don’t even return to a hairdresser a second time if I don’t like the way my cut turned out.
Actually, I’ve been on a quest for the perfect haircut for about two-and-a-half years. The trouble is that when we lived in Oregon, for the first time in my life, I had great hair, like the kind of great that would make strangers stop me on the street and ask where I got it done.
Then we moved 2000 miles away and though I tried, I couldn’t persuade my hairstylist to move with us. Since that time, I have been to probably a half dozen salons, scoured family snapshots and determined that no one ever takes a picture of the back of my head, and made a fool of myself asking countless perfect-haired strangers where they got their dos. So far no one has successfully duplicated my cut.
But no one has yet burned away all of my hair, leaving me blistered and bald, either. Nor have I had to sit for six hours strung up by a machine that looks like it is more likely to suck out my brain than give me fabulous hair. So maybe I should take a lesson from Katherine Laible and give someone another chance. Or maybe I should honor this 110th anniversary of Charles Nestle’s success and just get a perm.