Story of Us, 1910-1920: Do the Wave

Charles Nestle is credited with creating the precursor to the modern-day permanent wave.

Today, getting a full head of curls is easier than ever. From loose waves to cascading curls, there is an array of options to produce the curly look desired. Moreover, the process is relatively quick and easy. Charles Nestle, a German hairdresser also known as Karl Nessler, who was working in London at the turn of the century, is credited with inventing the precursor to the modern-day perm. His permanent waving system combined the chemical process with the thermal process. Using an alkali chemical combined with heated brass rollers, Nestle created a machine that was capable of permanently curling hair—well, at least for up to six months anyway. His first permanent wave machine used gas to heat hair that had been wrapped around chemically treated pads. This caused the chemical composition of strands of straight hair to break down and re-form as curly strands. 

The early permanent wave machines resembled a giant science experiment with their cumbersome size and weight. Nestle’s process employed about 12 two-pound brass rollers and could take up to six hours to complete. Nestle received a patent for his system in 1909, and opened his first salon in New York City in 1915 on East 49th Street. His permanent wave became a hit with American women, and it wasn’t long before his system became a sensation in the hairdressing world. Training in the Nestle method of waving was in demand, and lessons were advertised for as much as $250 by various agents appointed with issuing the “Nestle License.”

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