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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!