Machine Perm and Lost Toenails

perm (2)

Between the towns of Dexter and Redfield, along Iowa’s old Highway 6, are a couple of hills that could really be a worry during the Depression. Just south of Redfield, if your Model T was loaded, you needed to be going at a pretty good speed heading south to make it up “Redfield Hill.”

There is another area south of there with a steep slope on both sides, but that steep slope meant you could at least build momentum heading downward to make it to the top of the opposite hill.

Clabe Wilson worked at the Redfield Brick Yard during the Depression, and rode there from Dexter with others in a Model T, so they encountered those hills every time they went to work. Bad weather made getting back and forth even trickier.

Machine perms for $3

Clabe had a teenage daughter with straight hair who dearly wanted a permanent wave. The summer of 1934, before her junior year, Doris heard that a lady in Redfield was giving machine perms for $3. From babysitting a doctor’s children (25 cents an hour if the wife paid her, 50 cents an hour if the doctor did), Doris had saved up the $3.

But how to get the seven miles to Redfield and back? Her mother Leora decided she would go with her. They learned that a neighbor could give them a ride to Redfield but couldn’t bring them home. They planned to just start walking back, and surely someone from Dexter would recognize them and pick them up.

During the depression, Leora Wilson had two choices for clothing–a good dress or an everyday house dress. She wore her good dress and her two-inch Cuban heeled shoes for being seen out in the community, which included attending her daughter’s first perm.

In those days you didn’t call for a hair appointment, since few people even had telephones. You just knocked at the beautician’s door and hoped she would be waiting for a customer. She was.

The contraption

The woman started Doris’s “machine perm” by bathing straight strands of her hair with a chemical solution, then rolled each section around a metal roller. Each roller was secured with a clamp and tethered by cords to an electrical contraption that heated curlers, solution, and tresses. It worked by heat plus the chemical solution.

Picture Medusa from mythology. Doris’s hair sizzled as things heated up.

She kept her head very still. The whole room smelled of strong chemicals. When a spot on her head got too hot, the operator blew on it with a small bellows. Every so often the woman would unclamp and unroll a curler to check the progress. When she determined that the hair was indeed permanently curled, she undid the rollers and unrolled the new curls. machine perm

Doris, happy with her new coif, counted out the $3, all in coins. “Be sure to wait a week before washing your new curls,” the beautician cautioned.

Doris, still reeking of curling chemicals, and her mother headed south out of town on foot, hoping to catch a ride home with someone they knew. Cars breezed by, swishing their skirts, but no one stopped.

Redfield Hill

In spite of the hills, their trek back to Dexter was pleasant, except for that one big downslope south of Redfield Hill. As mother and daughter trudged down the steepness, Leora’s feet slid forward in those Cuban heels.

After they got home Leora sat down and pulled the shoes from her sore feet. Doris was so thrilled with her new waved hair that she didn’t realize her mother had suffered.

During the next few days, Leora’s toenails began to turn black. Eventually she lost most of them.

Otherwise, the machine perm was a success–no more curling iron before school–even though it left the ends of Doris’s hair a reddish color from being singed a little, and pieces of her hair broke off for quite a while.

But Doris and her mother were reminded for decades by the hills south of Redfield that Iowa certainly isn’t flat.


This story is also told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.




  1. When I was 14, I was conned into getting a perm to “tame” my natural curls and waves. Oy vey! I looked just like a poodle. “Don’t worry,” they said. “It will relax,” they promised. Right… Months later, I still looked like a poodle. I NEVER would got a perm again!

    • I bet you can still smell the chemicals, too! And speaking of “tame,” did you also use Tame Creme Rinse? Probably didn’t help either. ha

      • As I recall, I tried several curl relaxers… all to no avail. Those tight curls remained. What fixed it was a radical haircut… Ugh.

  2. Another delightful family tale! My dad told me that, growing up during the Depression, he had two pair of pants — an everyday pair (worn Mon-Sat) and good pants, worn on Sundays so the everyday pants could be washed. Sounds a bit like Leora’s wardrobe.

    • Before they were married, Dad drove to Des Moines to ask Mom for a date. No phone, so she didn’t know he was coming. She had to turn him down because she’d just washed her only two dresses and hung them up to dry.

  3. Did she really make 25 or 50 cents an hour to babysit? That was the going rate in the 60’s in small town Iowa.

      • But that is what is stated in the first paragraph on page 99– “From babysitting a doctor’s children (25 cents an hour if the wife paid her, 50 cents an hour if the doctor did)”

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