I was eight years old in 1950 and Toni Home permanents were all the rage. Many of my third grade classmates were appearing in school looking so pretty with their curls. Now my Mom had just purchased a Toni home perm kit and I, too, was going to have Shirley Temple curls. I couldn’t wait!
The big day was set for Saturday. My grandmother Davis arrived at our back door with a big smile. She was going to help my Mom, who soon washed my hair, then wrapped a big towel around it like a turban. She sat me on a bench Grandpa Davis had made, high so my Mom could stand behind me and work easily on my hair. Wrapping an old plastic tablecloth around me, Mom combed out my hair as Grandma Davis read the perm directions to her.
Soon Mom sectioned off slivers of hair, wrapped them in tissue paper, and tightly rolled my shoulder-length, naturally-wavy hair around very small rollers all over my head. Those rollers pinched and I didn’t like them, but that seemed mild when Mom started the next step, when she applied a horrible smelling-like-ammonia rinse all over my head that dripped down my neck and onto my back and made me choke when I breathed in. She set a timer and I sat miserably until it finally dinged.
It seemed like ages until she rinsed it off and then applied something called conditioner. She left it on awhile and though it dripped, too, it didn’t have the awful smell the other stuff did, so I wasn’t as cranky. Finally the big moment arrived: she removed the rollers and brushed my hair.
“This is a tight curl,” Mom remarked as she tugged to get a brush through my thick reddish-brown hair. Several minutes later, brushing completed, my mother walked around and stood in front of me, her eyes narrowing as she looked at my hair. The kitchen became so silent that I heard the clock tick softly. As I watched my mother’s eyes, I saw them slowly fill with tears. I looked over at my grandmother; her big brown eyes were huge as she silently puffed away on her cigarette and stared at me.
“It’s not very good, is it?” my mother said to Grandmother Davis.
My grandmother took a long puff, paused briefly, then exhaled; I always watched her smoking process with fascination. We all knew she didn’t inhale, so she must have swallowed the smoke because it soon emerged through her nose like a dragon’s fire. Today I wasn’t fascinated though as I waited for her words. Finally she said, “I think it looks awful, Audrey.” To this day, I remember her nasal Long Island twang as she said “awful.”
My mother’s tears increased. I jumped off the stool, ran to my room to look in my mirror, then started wailing, completely forgetting my recent vow to never cry again. My hair looked just like the kinky steel-wool pot scrubber my mother used to clean our pots and pans. My long hair had transformed into a tight Brillo pad!
I ran back to the kitchen, shouting, “I hate my hair! I’m not leaving the house until this horrible mess is gone.”
I didn’t get my way, of course, nor do I recall the growing-out process. But I do know I never had another perm until I was in my fifties, when I warned my hairdresser how easily my hair curled. My shoulder-length curls emerged soft and just right in the 1990s; I enjoyed my wash and wear style for several years.
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Recently, looking for information about those old home perms, I found this validation of my experience in a 2012 article at http://hubpages.com/style/Home-Perms. Titled The Return of the Curl, it opened with these words:
Ever been wiped out by a permanent wave…? When it comes to do-it-yourself, home perms are notoriously dodgy. Yet they have…apparently, come a long way from the burnt-out frizz producing chemical catastrophes of our mothers and grandmothers era and thank heavens for that.
Although the memory always makes me smile, I found the word “catastrophe” a perfect description for my 1950 home perm.