Karl Ludwig Nessler and the Permanent Waves

Advertisement for Nesslers permanent hair wave, from 'The Ladies Field'

Advertisement for Karl Nesslers permanent hair wave, from ‘The Ladies Field’

On October 8, 1906, German inventor Karl Ludwig Nessler presents his newly invented apparatus to produce permanent waves in his hairdresser salon in Oxford Street, London.

The first known practical thermal method was invented by Marcel Grateau around 1872. Grateau applied a pair of specially manufactured tongs which were heated over a gas or alcohol flame. However, due to the high temperatures, the hair tended to degrade. When women became more independent and self-determined, their hair also tended to become shorter. Also, electricity began to be used for heating and the application of the electric motor at the small business and domestic level. As shorter hair was improved in appearance by waving even more than long hair, it was only a matter of time before an improved form of waving appeared.

German inventor Karl Nessler invented an alternative method in 1905. He presented his idea the first time in the following year, but it is assumed that he had been working on the subject since 1896. Nessler wrapped the hair in a spiral around rods connected to a machine with an electric heating device. Sodium hydroxide was applied and the hair was heated to 100 °C or more for an extended period of time. The process used about twelve brass rollers, each weighting almost a kilo, and it took six hours to complete. These hot rollers were kept from touching the scalp by a complex system of countering weights which were suspended from an overhead chandelier and mounted on a stand. Nessler conducted his first experiments on his wife, Katharina Laible. The first two attempts resulted in completely burning her hair off and some scalp burns, but the method was improved and his electric permanent wave machine was used in London in 1909 on the long hair of the time. Already in 1901, Nessler moved to London. However, during World War I, the British jailed Nessler because he was German and forced him to surrender his assets. After escaping to New York City in 1915, Nessler reslized that numerous of his machines were in use, but most did not work well and were unreliable. Nessler opened a shop on East 49th Street, and soon had salons in Chicago, Detroit, Palm Beach, Florida and Philadelphia. In April 1919, his improved Hair Curler was filed at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Then, he was already an American citizen.

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