The Way We Were

Advisors and Advocates

In the 1930s, The American Hairdresser really started to come of age. From featuring new brands that are salon mainstays today to reporting on the latest government legislation, the magazine covered all of the industry's developments.

Much like today, beauty professionals in the 1930s turned to the pages of The American Hairdresser for product news, business tips and marketing strategies. However, the era also saw much change in salon amenities and government legislation. Longtime editor Hazel L. Kozlay and her staff kept readers abreast of these advances with editorial coverage and monthly columns.

A girl with her look-alike Shirley Temple doll.
A girl with her look-alike Shirley Temple doll.

By the 1930s, names such as Oster, Belvedere, Andis, Takara Belmont and Helene Curtis had already established themselves in the industry. But the decade saw the birth of other big names still going strong today. In 1930, Wella opened its American division; two years later, Revlon was founded by Charles and Joseph Revson and Charles Lachman. Also in 1932, Zotos (then known as Inecto) invented a chemical heat method for permanent waving that revolutionized hairdressing because it put an end to the use of electricity to curl hair. The company issued certificates to licensed shops to be displayed in their windows. An ad in 1935 called their product, "The Ultimate Permanent."

The time-saving Turbinator, which promised to dry hair faster.
The time-saving Turbinator, which promised to dry hair faster.

Presenting the latest hairstyles and haircolors was also part of the magazine's mission. Hairdressers from around the country offered their tricks of the trade. Kranz of the Belmont Hotel Beauty Salon in Chicago gave his advice on accomplishing that illusive "Champagne" tone; he advised readers to try a lavender rinse after bleaching. One article that ran in the mid-1930s promised that learning how to style a "Shirley Temple" would bring in new business with the under-10 set. It noted, "Even the little girls who come to the beauty shop have their favorite movie stars and like to have their hair dressed in the latest style set by these little Hollywood actresses."

Actress Bette Davis was the inspiration for a plastic tiara coiffure designed especially for The American Hairdresser by Perc Westmore, who began his career in Hollywood in 1921.
Actress Bette Davis was the inspiration for a plastic tiara coiffure designed especially for The American Hairdresser by Perc Westmore, who began his career in Hollywood in 1921.

The 1930s also saw the introduction of new salon amenities. Air conditioning received an enormous amount of coverage during the decade. Every few months the magazine ran articles such as "Of Course I'm Air Conditioning My Salon!" and "Air Conditioning Spells Patron and Operator Comfort Plus Extra Profit." These articles argued that hairdressers needed to look refreshed to sell services and that air conditioning could stave off the mid-summer slump. Our editors interviewed one salon owner, Lorenzo of Omaha, who raved, "Thanks to air conditioning we no longer rush one day and do nothing the next." Lorenzo also found that the cleansing portion of his air-conditioning system kept odors at bay, giving customers "pleasant air to breathe all year-round . . . which she does not enjoy everywhere."

The House of Westmore, considered the leading salon in Hollywood.
The House of Westmore, considered the leading salon in Hollywood.

Also significant, The American Hairdresser was on the forefront of industry activism. In an era of increased government regulation, the magazine not only reported on happenings in Washington, D.C., but its editors were also consultants to the bureaucrats, making sure that the industry's interests were well represented.

Retail was in its infancy in the 1930s, yet we saw fit to publish an article called "As You Sell So Shall You Reap," which is just as relevant today as it was when we printed it in 1935. The article concluded that department stores, drug stores and cosmetic specialty stores—hello, Sephora!—were walking off with merchandising business that was "rightfully a part of the beauty establishment." Salon owners were encouraged to build a foundation for "year-round merchandising business" and to remember that "one individual can give a limited amount of beauty services in one day but that same individual can sell an unlimited amount of merchandise at a profit to you."

"The style has interest from every angle and may be readily advanced for use by the budding celebrities of other cities," we wrote in June, 1935.
"The style has interest from every angle and may be readily advanced for use by the budding celebrities of other cities," we wrote in June, 1935.

Celebrity hairstyles became a popular feature in our magazine during the 1930s, much as they are now. Legendary Hollywood hairdresser Perc Westmore, the son of an English wigmaker who began his career in Hollywood in 1921, created a plastic tiara coiffure for Bette Davis and asked us to publish the photos.

In September 1936 we reported that Columbia Pictures received the cooperation of The Coiffure Guild of New York, which created a modernized version of an ancient Tibetan coiffure to be worn by actress Jane Wyatt in Lost Horizon. Not only did we print photos of the Shangri-La style, but we also suggested that it offered a "splendid opportunity for hairdressers to capitalize on the trend and adapt the Guild style for their patrons." Not much has changed in 70 years except that today actresses like Reese Witherspoon are setting the trends.

Deirdre Clemente is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Carnegie-Mellon University. She specializes in American cultural history and the interplay between fashion and social change. For more information on her work, visit her Web site,

Dressed for the Game

From Spalding and Speedo to Nike and Nautica, sportswear is an American tradition. But it wasn't until the 1930s that athletic clothing became an essential part of our everyday wardrobe.

Imagine a world without sweatpants, sports bras, hoodies or cross trainers. Seems unbearable? Maybe it was. Today, sportswear is an international phenomenon that rakes in billions of dollars and demands its own floor in department stores—and its own section in your closet.

While sportswear has been around since the turn of the 20th century, it wasn't until the 1930s that casual clothing became acceptable as everyday duds. Most historians consider the 1920s the Golden Age of Sports, as the decade saw millions of Americans participating in tennis, golf, baseball, running, swimming and other athletics. But after the game, one quickly changed out of these clothes and into street clothes. By the beginning of the 1930s, however, the line between clothes worn on and off the playing field had blurred significantly.

There are several key reasons for this "casualization" of the American wardrobe. First, sports had become so popular, it was cool to dress like an active participant. For example, shorts had become acceptable attire for bicycling in the late 1920s. By the 1930s, they were worn in the spring and summer months for nonathletic activities by men, women and children. Second, the trend toward "dressing down" was part of a general relaxing of social codes in other aspects of American culture. Women had taken up roles outside of the home, parents had less direct control over their children and previously steadfast moral standards had started to soften.

A third factor in the rise of sportswear was that the clothing was more available than ever before. By the 1930s, most department stores around the country had sportswear sections and an increasing number of Seventh Avenue fashion houses were responding to the forever-growing demand. While sportswear was first created by French couturiers, it became a distinctly American trend during this decade, with homegrown designers dominating the field by the start of the 1940s. Long forgotten names such as Tina Lesser, Claire McCardell and Claire Potter represented the first wave of women designers dedicated to creating sportswear.

So the next time you pull on those sweats for a late-afternoon run, think of the 1930s and be thankful that times, like fashion, do indeed change.


Depression-era Novels

The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck's novel is not simply the stuff of senior year reading lists. The novel tells of the Joad family, their displacement from their farm in Oklahoma and their path to California.

A Long Way from Chicago and Year Down Yonder These novels by Richard Peck chronicle the adventures of Joey and his sister, Mary Alice, who spend the summer with their eccentric grandmother in a small Illinois town.

Ask the Dust Part of a series of novels about Depression-era California written by Italian-American John Fante, Ask the Dust is a romance that tracks the unstable relationship of Arturo and a young, wild Mexican waitress in Los Angeles.

All the King's Men Yeah, yeah, you saw the movie. Granted, it doesn't have Jude Law, but the book by Robert Penn Warren is better. The story of corrupt politicians, do-gooding idealists and Southern society during the Depression is a real page-turner written in slick language and featuring a cast of larger-than-life characters.

The Dark Decade

The Great Depression was the longest sustained period of economic stagnation in our country's history. In case your cable plan doesn't include the History Channel, here is a summary of the situation.

The stock market crashed in late 1929 due in part to rising interest rates, a growing disparity between rich and poor and a flood of consumer goods when people simply weren't buying. As more and more Americans pulled investments out of the stock market, the country plunged into a recession.

While the crash can be blamed for the initial recession, it was a lack of confidence in the economy that kept the country from recovering. This domino effect built upon itself; the less Americans bought, the worse the economy became.

The crash was matched with a crisis in agriculture production that was the result of overproduction in the early 1920s. Dust storms blew across the American prairies and stripped away topsoil, making farming nearly impossible and causing hundreds of thousands of families to close down their farms. Many went to California to work as day laborers. The photographs of Dorothea Lange capture the angst of these displaced people.

Before the Great Depression, the government offered few social services. Unemployment compensation, social security and disability relief were outgrowths of the policies made in reaction to the recession. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he promised a more aggressive strategy, which became the New Deal.

The Big Band Era

In the 1930s talk was cheap and the bands were big. If it didn't swing, it didn't mean a thing.

Someone had to keep those jumping dance-hall machines firing on all cylinders, and such was the job of the bandleader. Here are some of the best and brightest:

DUKE ELLINGTON and his band were an embarrassment of riches during their epic career. Ellington had the kind of charisma that would have moved Toyotas off of a used car lot like half-priced Mercedes had he been a car salesman rather than an American music icon. Along with having the ability to draw admirers with ease, his band was filled with musicians who were considered among the best at what they did. After becoming the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club, Ellington's popularity and fame, along with his band's, exploded.

Edward "Duke" Ellington, center, with his band, "Nuf Said"
Edward "Duke" Ellington, center, with his band, "Nuf Said"

COUNT BASIE honed his talents on the piano in Harlem but later moved to Kansas City and joined Walter Page's Blue Devils. After Page's death, however, Basie salvaged some of the members of the band and headed for New York City by way of Chicago. Basie's flair on the piano and penchant for recording with some of the greatest jazz singers of the day were what made his hits like "April in Paris" American standards.

BENNY GOODMAN was a gifted clarinetist even at a very early age, but he found that in the mid-1930s audiences weren't receptive to his "hot" style, favoring smoother jazz instead. Feeling as though he and his band were being given their last rites at an engagement at the Palomar in August of 1935, Goodman decided that if he was going to fade into the sunset it was not going to be quiet. Goodman and his band abandoned the valiumesque set list and returned to their swinging style, thinking it might be their last opportunity to do so. The crowd went wild. The dance floor reached maximum capacity; it has been said that the jitterbug was created during the show. Goodman and his band became stars and went on to sell out Carnegie Hall in 1937 for one of the most famous and influential concerts in jazz history.

THE DORSEY BROTHERS—Jimmy and Tommy—found themselves working and recording for almost anyone on the jazz scene with a checkbook and a working ballpoint pen. After years of surviving as working musicians, Tommy and his older brother formed the Dorsey Brother's Orchestra in 1934. In 1935 the band split when heated feelings between Jimmy and Tommy came to a head. Tommy formed his own band after the breakup and proceeded to find success to the tune of more than 130 Billboard hits, including the classic "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." —Brian Burdulia is a freelance music writer and critic who lives in Pittsburgh.

Color by Clairol

In 1931, Lawrence Gelb discovered an intriguing haircolor preparation called Clairol while visiting Paris with his family. His decision to bring it back to the U.S. altered the course of beauty history.

What Coca-Cola is to soft drinks, Clairol Professional is to haircolor. A staple of the American beauty industry since the early 1930s, the company's history is the stuff of Hollywood movies.

An early ad touted the fact that Clairol contained a foamy shampoo base and mild oils that cleaned and conditioned hair.
An early ad touted the fact that Clairol contained a foamy shampoo base and mild oils that cleaned and conditioned hair.

When Lawrence Gelb and his family sailed for Europe in the summer of 1931, he was on the hunt for a new business venture. The stock-market crash had damaged his investment portfolio, and he was looking to break into the cosmetics or fragrance market because its products were disposable and required repeat use. In Paris, he came across a company called Mury, which made a product that grabbed his attention: Clairol hair dye. Unlike most dyes that coated the hair with color, Clairol produced more natural hues because it penetrated the shaft. Gelb and his fashion-conscious wife, Joan, visited Parisian salons to see how the product worked. Duly impressed, they brought $200 worth of product back home with them.

Once stateside, the Gelbs began showing the wonders of Clairol to salons in New York City, and the product quickly developed a cult following. They ordered more product, rented a loft on Broadway, staffed the new company with workers and did all of the labeling and packaging by hand.

Joan had observed that French women seemed to reach the height of their attractiveness and desirability at age 45. "Middle-aged was not in their vocabulary," she said. "To me, they seemed ageless. I wondered why American women of the same age considered themselves past that stage. Joan recognized immediately that Clairol might even the playing field, so-to-speak, rendering "middle-aged" women much younger than their years. "Here was a new idea just waiting to be developed," she observed.

The only fly in the ointment was the fact that while hundreds of thousands of women were using hair dyes, most refused to admit it. This is where Lawrence proved to be a marketing genius. He called his new product Instant Clairol Shampoo Tint, overcoming the vexing psychological barrier to haircoloring and removing the stigma attached to the word "dye."

Fundamental to the couple's success was their emphasis on education, which remains a cornerstone of Clairol Professional today. "In order to sell hairdressers on an idea or a product," Lawrence explained years later, "you first had to teach them to use it with good results." Given the company's remarkable success, it seems that Gelb knew what he was talking about.