They Say Beauty is Pain

The Curator's Corner, Virden Pioneer Home Museum

Our daily lives are filled with handy gadgets that make getting ready for the day faster and easier. Often times we take these appliances for granted. But what if we travelled back into the past? Say … the 1900’s? We would find that many of these tools have been enhanced and tuned up over the decades. And we might be slightly fearful of some inventions not yet tweaked for our well-being.

Enter, hair perming. It’s been practically perfected, but it was not always so.

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Karl Nessler was the son of a shoemaker and took an early interest in hair, working as an apprentice barber and hairdresser at several jobs. He began experimenting with hair-curling in 1896. He developed a procedure called the ‘spiral heat method’ which combined treating hair with an alkaline solution, and then curling it with extreme heat.

His first two experiments were conducted on his wife. The process took six hours, required her hair to be heated at a temperature of 212°F, and resulted in half of her hair burning off and her scalp being scorched.

Throughout these failures, his wife stuck by him. Nessler kept working hard, and finally made major improvements on his invention, which he called the ‘Permanent Wave Machine’. It grew increasingly popular, and Nessler received a patent for it in 1909.

He was jailed in WWI by the British for being German, but escaped. Nessler fled to New York and opened his own hair styling salon. The salon was wildly popular and Karl (who had changed his name to Charles at this point) employed 500 people in his many branches across the U.S. Unfortunately, he lost his money and business in the Black Friday stock market crash. But his advances in technology have not been forgotten, and played a huge part in the improvement of hair styling tools.

To make a donation towards the Museum’s Endowment Fund, call 204-748-1659 or email us at

Submitted by Naemi Ens

Works Cited

Tribune-Star, Barbara CarneySpecial to the. “Perm Machine Making Permanent Waves.” Star, 29 June 2014,

“First ‘Permanent Wave’ for Hair Is Demonstrated: History Channel on Foxtel.” History Channel, 29 Sept. 2017,

“r/TheWayWeWere - Permanent Wave Machine. Early 1920s.” Reddit,

 New team member Naemi Ens, originally from Germany, has lived in Manitoba for 13 years and is entering her senior year at Virden Collegiate Institute this coming fall. She is pepped-up about working at the museum this summer.





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