The 1920s Nestal Comb Waver by C. Nestle Co.

Gallia permanent hair waver, 1935

I think anyone who’s interested in vintage hair has at some time come across the photo above, or at least one similar to it. This scary looking device is actually used for creating permed hair during the 1920s and 30s and not a strange torture device. The inventor accredited with the very first permanent wave machine was Charles Nessler. Born Karl Ludwig Nessler in Germany, he began his career as a barber apprentice, moving to Italy, Switzerland and the UK. In London he patented his electric permanent wave machine in 1909, with improvements added in 1912 and 1914.

At the beginning of the First World War he fled the UK to America after his assets were confiscated as alien property. When he arrived in the US he found that copies of his machine were already being sold across the country, but this did not deter him. He filed several patents in the years to come including Artificial Eyelashes and Method of Making Same in 1923 and the Method Pertaining to Permanent Waving of Hair in 1929 under the name of C. Nestle Co. He even produced a permanent wave machine for home use that was sold for $15 each. During the 1920s he opened a chain of hair salons in places such as New York and Chicago, employing 500 staff and made more than $3 million during his career.

In October 1929 he, like many others, lost almost everything. He never really regained his prominence in the hairdressing world, partially being hindered by World War II, and when he died in 1951 only one hairdresser was in attendance at his funeral. However, his legacy lives on every single time someone goes into their hairdresser and asks for a perm, without Charles Nessler it just wouldn’t be possible.

So why am I rabbiting on about Charles Nessler? Well, a few weeks ago Mim messaged me when she spotted a 1920s C. Nestle Co. comb waver device on Curious Cat’s website and I was instantly intrigued. Again it looked like some weird torture device! After having a good look online I realised that Curious Cat were actually based in the nearest big town to me, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go and investigate it further.

The Nestal Comb, C. Nestle Co

And this is it! Yes, I couldn’t resist buying it in the end, despite the £40 price tag. It’s in amazing condition, all of the combs are perfect, without a single mark or chip on them. The only sign of it being old are the metal rods which have a tiny bit of rusting on them.

The owner of Curious Cat told me that they came from a barber’s salon down on the coast which had recently closed down. Whilst they were still in business they had a real Art Deco look to the whole salon and had lots of original bits and pieces on display and, of course, Curious Cat snapped them all up. She still has a few pieces left but most are geared towards male grooming. However, I was tempted by one of the two sets of 1920s clippers which looked like they’d never been used and a couple of advertising displays from the 30s, but I didn’t really need them.

1920s Nestle Home Waver

The device has six 5″ curved combs which are attached together by metal rods with screws. The rods pivot where they meet the combs which allows them to be moved so the combs sit parallel to each other or in a zig zag formation. They can also be pivoted so all of the combs lie tightly next to each other for easy storage.

1920s comb waver

Each comb has a tiny hole in the top of the curve and after a bit of research I’ve found out that elastic should be threaded through these. This helps to create the tension when moving the combs in your hair. I haven’t got any elastic that’s the right width but I’m going to try and find some at the weekend because I think it will make the world of difference. I’ve tried using them as they are but they do flop around a little too much to be able control on my own. With the elastic this should make it better.

C. Nestle Co patent, USA

The C. Nestle Co. name, patent number and ‘Made in USA’ are stamped into every rod, so there would’ve been no confusion of who made these! The extra holes at the ends of each rod are there so you increase the space between the combs if you wish to create a softer wave. It’s so clever for such a simple device.

Charles Nessler hair waving patent, 1921

I did a quick search on Google for the patent number and it instantly brought back a link to the original Hair-waving apparatus patent filed by Charles Nessler in 1918. You can have a read of it yourself here, but I warn you though, it takes a while to tune into the very business like tone of the text.

The patent included the above picture which shows the workings of how the device would be made and you can clearly see the elastic threaded through each of the combs. It lays in a zig zag when the combs are parallel but then goes straight when the combs are in a zig zag formation, so you can see how the tension works.

Also included is a description of how it is used. This isn’t a device like sponge rollers that you put in your hair and leave it there until the curl is set but instead it is an aid to help create perfectly placed waves. Once the hair is wet and treated with setting lotion, the device is placed on to one side of the hair  with the combs laying parallel to each other. You then carefully let go of each comb so they create a zig zag formation and in turn pushing the hair back underneath the alternate combs to create a wave. Finally you would pin each wave in place and allow it to dry. I have some super long, curved bobby pins similar to those used in the 1920s to do this. It all sounds very easy, but I am going to have to practice a lot more to perfect it.

Nestlé permanent hair wave

The Nestal comb by Charles Nessler

During my research I also found this fabulous original C. Nestle Co. advert which actually shows the device in all it’s glory and you can see that it was eventually given the name ‘The Nestal Comb’. It was available with either four or five inch combs at $2 and $2.50 respectively. That’s a damn sight cheaper than £40, although with inflation maybe this is rather an accurate price.

I am so thrilled I decided to purchase this beautiful comb waver, it really is such a wonderful piece of vintage hair history. What with this, my super long bobby pins and a large collection of Goody finger wave clips, I should be able to finally create decent 1920s/30s waves in my hair. I just really need to find some time to practice!


Just a vintage gal suffering from the Golden Age syndrome. A lover of all things old, especially the 1930s, seamstress, crocheter, maker of hats and enjoys rummaging at flea markets.


  1. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with it. Really good post – all new to me.

    • Yeah, it’s going to take some practice as it’s just such a bizarre thing to use.

  2. What a find! Such a great device to possess and i wish you luck with working it out and finding time to try it (I know how that feels). I’m very much looking forward to the results!

    • I never seem to find time to mess with my hair, so I really should just set aside an hour or two one weekend and just practice, practice, practice!

  3. What a marvelous score! Thank you for sharing the thoroughly fascinating history of this particular hairstyling aid with us. I really enjoyed this fun post and hope that you’re able to find the right size elastic for it.

    ♥ Jessica

    • Isn’t it wonderful? I’ll be on a very determined hunt this weekend to find just the right one. I can’t wait to see how it changes the way it moves. xx

  4. Oh my!! I had never seen that first photo, it’s like something out of Frankenstein!! I think you’re brave for wanting to give your purchase a go – good luck, I look forward to some pictures!! X

    • I can’t believe you’ve never seen that photo! I thought everyone had as it’s constantly popping up on my Pinterest. I’ll let you know how I get on. xx

  5. Oh wow Id love some cool 30s waves but that device does look scary. Plus the directions are bafflign to me I could never understand diagrams, sigh I shall never have perfect waves lol

    • I think I just about get how it’s supposed to be used but I will have a re-read of the description again before I have another attempt. I’m determined to get at least semi-perfect waves! x

  6. Hehehe, as soon as I saw it I thought of you. Anything hardcore jazz-age makes me think, “Oooh, Cate!” It looks like a fascinating gadget; if I still had a bob I’d have been tempted by it myself.

    • Ooo, that’s good to hear! Do let me know if you spot anything else at any point. I was so intrigued when you first sent me the link and I’m really glad I bought it. Thanks for the tip! xx

  7. I’d never seen that first photo either. It actually looks like a torturing instrument. Very interesting post, and what a find! I’m curious to hear how you get on with actually using it. xxx

    • It really does look scary doesn’t it? Can you imagine sitting under one of those waiting for your hair to set? The things us women do to look good! 🙂

  8. Such a great post! I love vintage. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

  9. I love that top photo its such a monstrously scary looking instrument and the look of slight anxiety on the models face always makes me smile, though it could be just how she’s drawn her eyebrows! What an interesting find it looks so beautifully made and I love how it has sparked you to research and find out so much fascinating info about it (thats always the mark of a true vintage lover) I look forward to seeing the results! xx

    • Hehehe! Yes, I do like my researching. My mum says I’m deadly on the internet because I can find out anything about anyone! xx

  10. Really interesting to read all about this piece of hair history. I tried to understand the diagrams but gave up and will have to wait and see the effect it has on your hair!

    • They probably make more sense when you have it in your hands and you see how it moves. I’m hoping to have another play with it this weekend. xx

  11. According to an inflation calculator, $2 in 1918 would be $48 in 2016 US. According to Google, that’s £33.

    Yup, suuuuuper overpaid for that 😉

    What a cool thing to find.

    • Oh, I don’t think £7 extra is much different and honestly, I would’ve paid more because it’s just so special.

  12. Hello Cate, I’ve been after some mervin wave clips for a while because I’m desperate for an easier way to do finger waves, but now that I’ve seen this marvellous contraption I’ve decided I simply must make one just like it. I’ve ordered 6 wooden combs which I’ll cut to curve where they meet the hair/scalp and I plan to use Meccano pieces as the metal plates. Have you successfully used the waver? I’m a little confused by your description of how it should work.. Any chance of a video tutorial please? Thank you, Joy.

    • I have to say, it’s not the easiest thing to use by yourself but would probably be easier with someone’s help. The main thing to remember is that it doesn’t stay in your hair as it’s drying, it’s just a device to help create the wave shape for it to be pinned in. You literally put it on the side of your head with the combs aligned to each other and then push the alternative ones back to drag the hair back. As you work down each comb doing this, you add your pins to keep the hair in place. Once you’ve done this on each one you remove the device and do the other side.

      I hope that helps to explain it a bit better. xx

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