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The definition of a “bad hair day in the fifties was very different from today’s version. We didn’t have hair salons that offered every possible adventure in hair coloring and styling, which today’s salons offer and charge large amounts of money for sheen and fluff. In the fifties, hair was cut, curled, washed and dried at home and Mother was the resident hair stylist. She had no training, of course, but no one seemed to care. If bangs needed to be cut or hair trimmed, she brought out her trusty scissors-that is, if she could find them-and did the deed.

She was my mother and I loved her of course, but she wasn’t very good at cutting bangs. In fact, she was “downright awful.” All I have to do is look at all my pictures to verify that fact. The pixie cut was all the rage back then (apparently) because in most of my early photos I sport a very short haircut, with even shorter, and more often than not, crooked, jagged bangs—Mother’s signature. Jagged, crooked, uneven, botched-whatever they were-they were definitely not straight. She either had an early case of palsy or she just didn’t know how to cut a straight line. The basic problem was that once she cut them, she couldn’t take back the deed. Sissy and I were stuck with crooked, too short, uneven, awful bangs-for at least the next eight weeks.

I managed to live with the crooked bangs, but the worst of the bad hair days arrived when Mother grew tired of the pixie cut and decided to perm my hair. Sissy was lucky because her hair was naturally curly. Remember, she was the redhead. Me? Fine, brown hair which was straight as an arrow. For whatever reason, Mother decided to experiment with a Toni. That’s what we said back then. “I’m getting a Toni.” The home perm—the calamitous, horribly frightening home perm, the thought of which still gives me shivers to this day.

The infamous Toni Permanent Kit. The square cardboard box was fuchsia and black, and contained all the necessary ingredients to permanently ruin my hair. First there was the wave Lotion, pink plastic curlers (to match the fuchsia of the box), and papers (which resembled the same type of paper used to roll cigarettes or other smoking materials), and step by step instructions.

  • Separate the hair into small sections
  • Cover with the paper
  • Wrap the curler around the paper, making sure the paper remains in place
  • Wrap the hair from its end to the scalp; clasp the curler in place, then soak the rolled hair with the wave lotion.
  • Simple enough, right?

    Simple, yet probably carcinogenic, based on the overwhelming caustic smell of the chemicals.

    The last time Mother gave me a Toni was right before my third grade annual school picture. Each year, the school sent a notice home announcing the date the photographer was scheduled, and Mother always made certain we were dressed in our best clothes, with hair combed, and faces absent of food or toothpaste. That particular year, Mother decided to give me a perm. I may have actually asked for one but who remembers the details. Unfortunately for me, the perm did not go so well. Totally frizzed out and sticking straight up in all directions from my scalp, my hair was fried. Not only did I have thick, unattractive glasses, I had to wear to see one inch in front of me, I now had the worst hairdo at Hebron School. Unruly and horribly frizzy, Mother ended up pulling my hair back from my face using a tortoise shell plastic headband.  Now I looked like an alien who couldn’t see. The photographic results were a disaster. .

    When the proofs came back, I didn’t want any of them, but my parents bought the package as usual. The one 8 x 10 (to display at home), two 5x7s (to send to the grandparents), and multiple wallet-sized photos (to exchange with classmates). I refused to exchange any pictures with my friends and kept the unwanted photos in my desk.

    Mother eventually quit cutting my bangs and perming my hair, and let me grow out my hair into a long ponytail. We began visiting her friend Florence who had a beauty shop set up in her basement, and the days of the frizz were over.

    Back in the eighties, I decided to get a perm for some reason. Curly hair must have been back in style. The results were not much different than back in the fifties—my hair was horribly fried and totally unattractive. It took months to slowly and methodically erase the effects of that perm, and no wave lotion has touched my hair since.

    I still prefer my pixie cut and have come to terms with the fact that my hair is fine and straight and yes, still brown through the magic of other chemicals saturating my head and scalp. Sissy still has that beautiful curly hair and the Toni Company has gone out of business. The rumor is that the chemicals in Toni’s wave lotion damaged the hair.

    Thanks for that update, Sherlock.

    Sassy photoToni home perm<a