Some years ago, during a stint as the manager of a used book store, I came across a wonderful, slim volume about women’s fashions in the 1920s. What really fascinated me was the description of hair styles.
What does this have to do with the WordPress Daily Prompt of “Mad As A Hatter”? Keep reading, and you’ll discover how the quest for beauty drove some women mad as a hatter.
The hair bob was in, that short hair cut that we associate with the Roaring 20s in the United States. It was created by the first curling iron, invented by Francois Marcel Grateau, a technique that was referred to as Marcelling. The style took a little time to set but it would hold for an exciting evening on the town. The search was soon on for ways to make the style last longer to avoid all that uncomfortable time with nasty, hot iron.
Some inventors (all men, you will note) developed huge machines that looked like a cross between an octopus and an electric chair. You would sit there for a couple of hours as your wet hair “steamed in” the curl.
But even that inconvenience was short lived. The next solution was to create a “permanent” wave caused by a chemical reaction that would change the molecular structure of hair. So the search began for a “reagent” to aid in the chemical change. One of the first that was tried was cow urine. Wouldn’t that be lovely to wear on your head? What perfume would cover that? I have to admit that I really don’t know what cow urine would smell like, not having been raised on a farm, but I don’t think I’d like it.
One of the earliest hair perming solutions, and one that produced the longest lasting wave, had its drawback in that it gave the woman blinding, crippling headaches for the next two days. It was popular in that the wave lasted for an unprecedented two months!
The chemical responsible for all this beauty was mercury. Mercury, the chemical that drove hatters mad. (You see, I promised you a tie in.) Men who made hats used mercury to shape wool felt hats, giving them a lovely brim. Mercury is quite dangerous to human beings, and made those poor hatters jump and twitch and appear to be rather crazy, hence the expression “mad as a hatter”. Those poor women of the 1920s, striving for the beauty of a permanent wave, were being poisoned by mercury. No wonder they had blinding headaches! Fortunately the use of mercury went out of fashion as quickly as it went in, but it lead to even smellier and more caustic chemicals. We’re still experimenting today for the perfect process and product. What price beauty, even if it doesn’t make you mad as a hatter any more?