Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

zz A Hair Curling Experience


    zz A Hair Curling Experience

    or, Everything Old is New Again

    My old sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Rice, would frequently observe that “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I was again reminded of that this week, in a brief news item about hairdressing in Asia.

    This story went out over the news services late last week, about a “new” COVID-safe method for curling hair being used in Bangkok.  The Vancouver Sun called it “A Hair-Curling Experience – A salon in Bangkok offers this no-hands approach to curl a customer’s hair. Rumors that the somewhat frightening device may also be used for blood transfusions and mind-control experiments could not be independently verified.”  A comment on Twitter from PhilstarNews asked “Is this the future of hairdressing?”

    Look familiar?


    A woman getting a COVID-safe perm in Bangkok. (Photo – Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)


    Yes, it does! Because this machine is not futuristic at all – it’s Retro.  It is the modern version of an electric perm machine that was invented about a century ago.  The Needham History Center has one such device (actually, we have two) and it is currently on display in our exhibit, The History of Needham in 100 Objects.*

    Following the First World War, fashion for women dictated small sleek hats and short bobbed hair.  The “Marcel Wave,” became the rage – a flat permanent wave, close against the scalp, that lasted for days and was not mussed or flattened by the obligatory hat.


    Clockwise from left: Electric perm machine, circa 1920s (Needham History Center Collections). The Marcel Wave. Actress Joan Blondell gets a perm in the film, “The Greeks Had a Word for Them” (1932)


    Electric perm machines to create the Marcel Wave were developed in Europe in 1917 and quickly became popular in the United States as well. Before this, hair was curled “naturally” (set when wet), or permed using caustic chemicals.  The perm machine’s wiry extensions functioned like hot rollers – treated hair was wound around a curler, and the curler tube was inserted into one of the “plugs” where it was heated and the wave was set.  Unfortunately, the combination of wet hair and electricity did result in the occasional accident – shocks, heat-burned skin, and the occasional hair fire.

    Production of these machines fell off during the Second World War, especially in Europe where the need for manufacturing facilities for the war effort was more urgent.  The industry did not recover after the war, both because of the longer hairstyles, and because of newer, easier, and less scary methods of perming hair.

    The new version of the machine looks like it’s made of plastic, and less liable to shocks, hair fires, and the rest.  We hope that the results are more like Free-and-Flowing, and less like Bride-of-Frankenstein, because we might be seeing these ourselves soon, as personal-grooming businesses look for safer ways to serve their customers.  Truly, necessity is the mother of re-invention.  Or, as Mr. Rice would say, There is Nothing New Under the Sun.

    * Though we are closed for the time being, Highlights from the exhibit – including the perm machine – are available online, at