Toxic Hairstyles in Old Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to your hair?

Bad hair happens to everyone unless your hair is too short to go astray. You know what I’m talking about.

Generations of women (and men) have spent money on preparations to make their hair conform to the latest style. But some of those lotions and shampoos made problems worse: They could burn the scalp and make people lose their locks.

There was another trend that actually made people sick! Look closely at your 20th-century snapshots for evidence of a permanent wave.

The combination of heat and chemicals made hair behave. Permanent waved hair was very popular in the 1920s, but the process dates back to the 1870s. You can learn more about the history of the “perm” on Wikipedia.

Here’s another woman with a similar ‘do from the 1920s.

It’s a lovely 1923 portrait from my collection of research images.

So how did these women attain their gorgeous curled looks?

Radium—the radioactive, cancer-causing substance associated with Marie Curie. Supposedly it also gave you hair that others would envy.

The full advertisement for the product advertised with this image, copyrighted in 1924 by H.W. Cherry, actually mentions the word “radium.” You could get a permanent for $5.

There are no statistics on how many women used this process or how many became ill because of it. Do you have a picture of an ancestor with a permanent wave? I’d love to see it.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now