The History of Perms


The machine designed and patented by Marjorie Sojourner.

Connor Fox, School Clubs Editor

One of the first methods of getting a perm was to use metal rods wound around your hair and use heat to curl it.

What do Bob Ross, Emma Stone, and James Charles all have in common?

They have all gotten perms!

Everyone has heard of them, many have gotten them, but how many people know the history of the process? My guess would not be too many. So, in the pursuit of knowledge, we are going to be taking a deep dive into the development of the modern perm.

You may be asking yourself: “What is possessing this guy to write an article about the history of perms?” Well, the simple answer is that the perm is back and better than ever. With the rise of 80s fashion and 80s looks, everybody, guys especially, are looking towards the perm to give them that groovy look.

The first perm similar to what the procedure is now was invented in 1906 by a swiss hairdresser named Karl Nessler. 

Nessler is credited with designing the first chemical method for a perm. He would first attach metal rods to your scalp and then douse them in a caustic soda. After waiting 6 hours, the rollers could finally be taken off. 

The first experiments of this perm method were done on Nessler’s wife, whose hair ended up completely burned off as a result.

Throughout the 1920s, many people sought to improve on the perm method designed by Nessler, but it was not until ‘28 that we got the first patented perm machine. 

Up until then, it was quite the process to roll and heat and douse the hair, but with Marjorie Sojourner’s new invention, it became much more efficient to do a perm. 

Marjorie Sojourner was an African American hairstylist that was tired of how difficult it was to weave black women’s hair. The machine was a chandelier-type device with wires hanging down that attached to the hair and used heat to give it waves. 

Marjorie Sojourner’s invention helped pave the way for the modern perm. The process has changed drastically over the century since its creation, with the scary machines no longer needed in the process. 

Safer chemicals have also been discovered to help give hair a natural wave, which obviously helps reduce the number of scalp burns and fallen clumps of hair after the customer wants pretty beach waves.

On December 23, 2020, I decided to do some good old-fashioned investigative journalism to see what all of this perm business is all about. I had been convincing myself to get a perm for a fairly long amount of time; I just did not want to come out of the hairdresser looking like a 70s disco singer. 

The hairdresser washed my hair, put in little coils, and poured a chemical that came in a baby-bottle-esque tube on my hair. 

The next thing I knew she was taking out the coils and I had curly hair; I don’t personally know how the chemicals work, but I do know that I still have my scalp and my hair so I count it as a success.

Well come on, we all know it’s sorcery.