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Valley Life

February 23, 2014

Making Waves: Woman devotes part of rural Vigo County home to museum on hairstyling

TERRE HAUTE — Some studies show that women spend more than $50,000 in a lifetime and more than one month of their entire life at a beauty salon, trying to get and keep their hair just the right style. How they have accomplished this through the ages has been a fascination for local hairstylist Brenda Ellis for more than 50 years.

As a matter of fact, part of her rural Vigo County home is devoted to her museum, “The Wave We Were,” where she has assembled hundreds, if not thousands, of hairstyling paraphernalia over those years. At age 18, Ellis became a hairstylist and at the first sighting of a couple of antique artifacts of her profession she became entranced.

“An older lady brought me my first old curling iron and hair dryer and that was it — ever since then I started looking and collecting,” Ellis said.

Although not one of her older pieces, she displays a permanent wave maker from 1945 which has the original owners’ receipt. “It shows she paid $400 for the machine and made payments on it until it was paid for,” Ellis said.

“Actually this was bought in the year I was born — we are exactly the same age — but look at how much better I look!” she laughed.

Ellis was featured on Across Indiana in 2008 because of her unique and extensive collection and also had her collection displayed at the Vigo County Historical Museum some 30 years ago. It has grown astronomically since then.

One curling iron Ellis owns is sterling silver and uses coal to heat up. She also has a number of late 1800s celluloid blades for shaving mens’ beards — now the blades are interchangeable — but of course these are blades that can be sharpened. Ellis also has numerous moustache irons — which shows that men, too, through the ages have been conscientious about their looks and beautification — maybe not to the extent of the ladies, though.

Ellis also has a set of barber scissors, including one with three holes in case your fingers got tired of the same position. Most of the curling irons Ellis has are for women and are from the 1920s and 1930s. One is a portable and heated by alcohol. Ladies carried this in their purse for touch ups, she said. This particular curling iron dates from the 1890s, according to Ellis.

Ellis has also displayed curling irons that slip inside of an iron, and there’s even an iron that has an iron-shaped attachment that holds 12 curling rods. It fits snugly over the iron’s face to warm them. In the late 1800s women put curling irons down the chimneys of oil lamps to heat. They would remove the iron when hot, wipe the soot off and then curl, Ellis explained. She also has several gas heaters that were used for curling irons stemming from the late 1800s. They come in different shapes — one is an alligator, another a bath tub. Both are interesting curling iron holders of days gone by. Ellis also has one of the first portable beauty shop hair dryers from the 1920s, not too different from what you see in today’s salons. One wall of the museum is lined with antique dryers and perm machines. One perm machine from the early 1920s looks similar to a cow milking machine.

There is even one hair curling apparatus in Ellis’ collection that makes one curl at a time and takes 45 minutes per curl. Today, a complete perm might take only one hour, Ellis laughed. Have many changes been made in permanent waves today? “Well, we sure don’t do that anymore,” Ellis said, pointing to the milking machine type apparatus, but surprisingly not much has changed over the years with perms, she added. You still have the activator and the neutralizing process, but hair coloring has made drastic changes through the years, she added. It used to be two hours for the bleaching process, 45 minutes for the toning, and hair still had to be set, dried and styled. Today, some coloring takes about 15 minutes to process, she said.

Ellis said her pride and joy of all her collection is one of the very first home permanents — the only one in existence that she knows of. It is a 1925 Nestle Lanoil Home Outfit, complete with end papers to roll the curls. The box says that it “makes straightest hair naturally curly.” Ellis has an advertisement for the perm that is in a May 1925 newsmagazine “The Etude,” dating the antique for certain.

Through the ages

Information from “A History of the Four Star Marketing Incorp.” put out by Tresemmé and displayed among Ellis’ collection, takes us way back to 3000 B.C., showing Egyptian women curled their hair by applying mud, wrapping it around wooden rollers and then baking it in the sun.

They oftentimes wore wigs that were in the common “Egyptian” style.

From 2000 B.C. to A.D. 700 in Mesopotamia, waves were gained by using heavy waxes and oils, according to the same poster.

From 1200 to 1400 in Britain, curls were achieved by using a curling iron and fastening elaborate wire buns to the hair. These were encrusted with gems.

Between 1700 and 1800, people like Madame de Pompadour, mistress of the French King Luis XV, achieved their elaborate curls by using wire frames. The hair was then pasted, greased, powdered into lofty curls that reached a whopping three feet high. It is said those hair styles lasted up to two months and sometimes took up to five hairdressers to achieve the desired effect.

Skipping to 1984, the poster indicated that Tresemmé introduced “curl connection,” a two-strength perm and balanced conditioner; it was an “exothermic’ perm formulated to achieve the desired style.

If you’re having a bad hair day, just be glad you’re not getting perms in the late 1920s when perms got the nickname “pocket perms.” That was a term that stemmed from the fact that the harsh chemicals and high temperatures of the equipment caused the customer’s hair to break off during the process. Those burned-off tresses were often “pocketed” by the beautician in hopes that the lady in the chair wouldn’t notice a few curls missing! If the ladies had known this, they might have done as ladies in the Victorian Era did, taken the locks home and put them in a hair receptacle, where all their loose hair from brushes were kept to make “rats” that were pre-cursers of hair pieces to boost hair higher. Ellis has a number of hair receptacles, complete with the “rats.” By the 1940s “cold wave” perms were introduced, which were not quite as harsh as former perms had been.

‘The Wave We Were’

Ellis’ extensive collection is one where “you just have to see it to really appreciate it,” she said.

Although her museum is not opened determined hours, it is open to the public and can be seen by making an appointment. Contact Ellis at 812-877-1737. Or achieve today’s hairstyle by contacting Ellis at Sandy’s Touch of Magic across from the old Spinning Wheel on North Lafayette Avenue at 12 Points, where she is a hairstylist.

Past styles

• 1920s: The Boby/Finger Wave

• 1950s: The Pompadour, The Ducktail, The Pixie

• 1950s to1960s: The Beehive

• 1960s: The Shag and The Bouffant

• 1960s to 1970s: The Afro

• 1960s to 1970s: Dreadlocks, Feathered Flip (aka the Farah-do)

• 1970s: The Jheri Curl

• 1970s to 1980s: Devilock


Check it out

Make an appointment to see what Brenda Ellis has at her museum by calling 812-877-1737.

On the history of hairstyling





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