In January of my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, I stopped at Leigh’s barbershop in Richfield for a haircut. Back then, before the genes on Mom’s side of the family took their toll, I had an almost full head of light brown hair, thin and straight, parted in the middle and long at the back and sides. I needed just a trim, really, but above the big mirror behind the barber chairs hung a photograph of a male model sporting a full-bodied cut, an appealing masculine wave.
I asked the barber about it.
“It’s a permanent,” he said, “and I think it would look good on you.”
“Not a permanent,” I protested, imagining with horror the tight curls of Greg’s later-seasons look on “The Brady Bunch.”
The barber assured me the permanent would a modest one. I think he called it a “semi-permanent.”
“Let’s do it, then,” I said, wanting to look like the guy in the photo.
Of course I left the barbershop looking like Greg Brady. No amount of shampooing could relax the curls, and I was the subject of merciless teasing from the high school hockey team I coached that year. Luckily it was winter, allowing me to hide it under a stocking cap much of the time. The curls eventually grew out, and by summer I was sporting a kind of journalism school mullet, copy editor in front, party in the back.
I wish I had read the story below before agreeing to get that perm in 1979. Nearly 60 years earlier, a “Cub Reporter” at the Minneapolis Tribune was asked to investigate rumors of men getting “marcel” waves at beauty parlors around town. She turned in a fine piece of writing, accompanied by a half-dozen delightful illustrations by Coyle Tincher.
All Minneapolis Men are Vain
and Women Can Be Made So
Where Do All the Boys Get Those Cute Waves in Hair?
Buy 'Em at the Beauty Parlors, Just as the Girls Do, Say Those Who Earn a Living by Making Two Marcels Grow Where None Grew Before.
Cub Reporter a Sacrifice on Altar of Duty
Hair May Get Straight Again But Will Never Look the Same.
“THIS fellow Blackie said he had to have his hair marcelled because he was going to a dance.”
Miss Elizabeth Erickson, lady barber with a shop at Nicollet and Lake, was telling the Cub Reporter how if it wasn’t one thing it was another in the means of livelihood she had chosen.
“Blackie, that was what we called him because we didn’t know his real name, was a handsome young man with long blue-black hair that was broken in tis glossy smoothness by a deep wave. The girls always enjoyed shaving him because he had such a pleasant way with him.
“We hadn’t seen him for a month or more. Then he came in in a tearing hurry, jammed himself into a chair, and demanded: ‘Gimme a marcel quick.’ His hair was as straight as yours.
“ ‘What do you think this is, a beauty parlor?’ I asked him.
“ ‘Aw, have a heart,’ he begged like a child. ‘The place where I usually get it done is closed, and my girl never saw me with it straight. For the love of Mike, how can I take her to a dance like this?’
“I didn’t see what I could do, but one of the girls got a curling iron, and in half an hour he looked like himself again.”
It Would Surprise Women.
“As Mrs. Mary Dahl says – she’s a lady barber in the Allen hotel – women would be surprised if they knew how much time and money men spend to make themselves look nice.”
Miss Ida Marie, assistant lady barber at Miss Erickson’s shop, couldn't keep out of the conversation here.
“They’re just awful the way they fuss over how they look,” she told the Cub Reporter. And her dimples deepened as she smiled.
“They come in and get a massage before they call on their girls, before they go to the theater, and before they go to a dance. And then they have the nerve to say they do it because it helps them in their business.
“Me vain? Sure I’m vain, if you mean do I care how I look. But after all women kind of have a right to feel that way, haven’t they? You expect something different from a man.”
The Cub Reporter, who had been a violent suffragist in the days when that was necessary, quoted sardonically, “We don’t want ’em to be our equals or our superiors.”
They Purr Like Kitten.
Miss Marie dimpled again. “They’re supposed to have something bigger on their minds. But they try to laugh it off. ‘Better sling some mud in my face, today,’ they’ll say. And then they sit there purring like a kitten, they’re so comfortable.”
Miss Erickson had finished arguing with a youth who wanted pure olive oil rubbed into his fair mane. She thought Vaseline would create a luxuriance that would make him look like a free verse poet, but he said that nothing gave the luster like olive oil, the olive oil from Greece.
She dusted him off maternally, and he went out slowly, peeking at himself in every mirror he passed.
Miss Erickson caught up Miss Marie’s word “comfortable.” “That’s it with the older men, I think. They like having somebody fussing over them to make them comfortable. You’d like it yourself, and a good massage would take that tired look off your face.”
“But men are vain,” insisted Miss Marie, and the other girls assented vigorously.
“Men are vain,” the Cub Reporter told the editor when she got back to the office.
“Other men,” said the Boss, absentmindedly. “I’ll never let the tailor press these trousers again.”
“And they get their hair marcelled.”
“I don’t know. A lady barber told me.” And the Cub Reporter told the whole story.
Job for Cub Reporter.
The Girl Reporter winked at the Editor.
“Why not send the Cub around to the beauty parlors with an expense account? She can get marcelled herself the while she’s finding out where you folks get your manly locks curled.”
The editor looked hopeful. The Cub clutched the little knob of straight red hair, which to say it in the kindest way, was innocent of artifice.
“It won’t hurt you to lose it,” the Girl Reporter said cruelly. "It always looked like a doughnut slipping off a shelf.”
“Slipping’s the word,” the Boss continued the attack. “Here’s a sheaf of hairpins you spilled on me yesterday when I was conferring with you about that story. You go to the beauty parlors, and start today.”
“But,” the Cub Reporter quavered, “my nice straight hair, it’s never had an iron on it.”
“And never kept a hairpin,” spat the Girl Reporter.
“Have you no devotion to the paper?” the Boss roared. “Go out and do what I tell you. You can wash the marcel out if you don’t like it. Now go out.”
“She can wash it out,” chortled the Girl Reporter.
And to the music of office laughter, the Cub Reporter went her way.
She Gets a “Facial.”
On the way down in the office elevator, she took a look in the mirror that was to have been a farewell to that nice straight hair. But she was puzzled to see on her lips a fatuous smile. Could it be?
“H’m, we’re all funny people,” mediated the Cub Reporter, picking up a hairpin.
Because of that smile, she didn’t dare have her hair done first; she stepped into a little shop on Nicollet, thoughtfully named the “Sanitary,” and demanded a massage.
“You mean a ‘facial’?” the girl asked a little contemptuously.
“Whatever you call it, I’m not up on modern slang.”
She was gently lowered into the chair, protected with dry towels and swathed in hot wet ones. She wondered wherein men found the comfort which the lady barbers had mentioned.
While she lay and steam-burned, the girl was sitting in a low rocker, embroidering on something that looked dainty and feminine. All around were screens with figures of happy children prancing and playing. It was an exceedingly domestic shop in which to lie and suffer.
Men Barred – Keeps Place Nice.
“I have heard,” the Cub Reporter ventured, “that men come in to get their hair done.”
“We don’t take gentlemen,” the girl answered, rubbing great gobs of pink cold cream into the Cub Reporter’s skin. “Gentlemen muss up a place so, and we like to keep it nice here.”
She didn’t appear shocked at the idea of a man’s having his hair done. Only it mustn’t be in her shop. The Cub Reporter kept quiet for awhile during which the girl wiped off all the cream she had rubbed on, and with it perhaps a speck of dirt.
“Dear me,” she thought, “was that what my friends meant when they said I should powder to cover my deficiencies? I must find out if they knew that I was as dirty as I am. And I must continue the search for the marceller of males. Ouch.”
The vibrator was brought into play, and the Cub Reporter felt just like going to the dentist. But she got a peek at herself in the glass, and through the depths of grease she could still see that silly anticipatory smile on her face which she had first noticed in the elevator.
“Good Lord, am I that much of a fool or is there something the matter with the mirrors? Funny idea that about men getting themselves fixed up, isn’t it,” she asked the operator.
She Felt Very Naked.
But the girl didn’t answer until after she had adjusted a powerful light which showed through even the wads of cotton she put on the Cub’s eyes. She was evidently peering though a magnifying glass in a determined search for imperfections.
“She needn’t have done that,” thought the Cub Reporter resentfully, “there are enough right out on the surface.” And she felt very naked.
“Oh, my, yes, gentlemen are very careful of themselves. One of my friends says that some day she is going to start a beauty parlor in the Elks’ club or some place like that where gentlemen can go without the embarrassment of finding their wives go to the same place as they do. You’ve got a lot of blackheads, miss.
“My friend says that gentlemen would never think of letting the wrinkles get the best of them, the way women do. You must laugh a lot, miss, there’s so many crow’s feet around your eyes. It’s all right to be jolly, but you’ve got to think about how you look. Will you have a bleach?”
The Cub Reporter thought she’d better have everything going. So she was put into a sort of icy plaster cast and left to sit while the girl embroidered placidly.
“That smile’s out of way, anyhow,” she congratulated herself as she viewed her plastered features and shivered.
All things end. Denuded of the cast, she emerged, looking somewhat skinned. She stopped the girl who was trying to pluck her eyebrows, refused to have them blackened, and blushed as she was powdered and rouged a trifle.
The girl’s eyes were glued on the “doughnut and shelf” arrangement of her hair.
“Wouldn’t you like to have your hair dressed?”
But she didn’t know enough about the vanity of men, so she didn’t get the Cub’s trade.
It was too late then to go to another place, so the Cub went back to the office. She walked around the block twice before she had the courage to go in, and was then a little hurt because no one noticed the change in her.
She had an appointment with the dentists. By way of being entertaining and postponing the evil moment, she told the youngest dentist, a youth just out of college, about her quest. He flattered her with deep interest, then he drew her aside.
Oh No, They’re Not Vain.
“Say, if you find out how to grow new hair, let me know, will you? My mop’s getting thin, and a fellow kinda hates to feel that he’s getting on. Don’t say anything about this to anybody. I’ve tried barbers, but maybe they don’t take the interest that a woman would.”
While she was having her teeth overhauled she heard some high school girls chattering outside.
“Girls, I’m perfectly positive. I knew him in grade school, and he had hair as straight as anything then. And he hasn’t had a typhoid fever, either. Him with a wave you could lose your finger in. Humph!”
“Well, I know how he got it. I caught my brother trying to put one in the other night. They let their hair grow long; then when they go to bed, they tie tape around their heads under their chins, wet their hair, pull it out a little, and there they are with a water wave. Wouldn’t it make you sick?”
“You know Philip? He’s the one that used to cut his hair so short that it stuck up straight and sharp like a scrubbing brush, just like his brother’s. His brother went away, so’s now he can do what he pleases, and it’s long enough for him to braid. I s’pose his is too stiff to try the tape treatment on. Then they talk about us being foolish.”
A Man at Last.
A little gossip she heard on the car the next morning sent the Cub Reporter to Madame de Guile's beauty shop, where she asked for a shampoo.
“Would you mind,” she suggested to the attendant in the office, “giving me the most talkative girl you have?”
The astonished attendant raised her eyebrows.
“I just love being talked to,” she tried to explain, “I’m such a poor conversationalist myself.”
There were some more hot towels, a new stunt to the Cub, who had always thriftily washed her own hair. Vibrator and violet ray followed, to the deep astonishment of the subject, who was so excited she could scarcely remember what she was there for. The girl didn’t talk at all.
The Cub Reporter was trying to think of some way to open the subject of men in beauty parlors when one stalked majestically through the aisle between the lines of booths.
“What, a man in a beauty parlor?” she inquired, properly shocked.
“Oh, yes. We have many gentlemen come in here.” The girl’s tone was indifferent.
“Just what the women come in for, manicures, marcels, massages, and all that. That gentleman you saw just now, he’s rather elderly but he wants to be married. All the girls in the place are talking about him.
Nose Wart, His Bane.
The Cub Reporter lay back comfortably, enjoying the skillful fingers manipulating the skin of her scalp and listening to the flood of talk she had started.
“He’s got a big wart on his nose that makes him look like a, a, oh some sort of animal with a horn on its face that you see in the circus. There’s a girl in his office he’s crazy about; she’d marry him too, he’s rich enough. Only she can’t go the wart on his nose.
“So the poor goof’s coming up here to have madame take it off. Some job, taking off a horn like that.
“It’s kinda pitiful to hear him talk. Funny the way folks just naturally have to have somebody to slop over on, ain’t it. ‘Mary and Emma never seemed to mind it,’ he whines, ‘they both married me, and Mary, specially, never had a cross word on her tongue all day long.
“ ‘Doesn’t seem’s if Josephine could really love me. But I guess girls are more finicky than they used to be when I was a young fellow. Mary and Emma were both good women, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Josephine.
“ ‘ Josie,’ and then the poor boob gets red, ‘Gotta stop sayin’ that,’ he says. ‘Josephine don’t like it. Ouch, damn.’ The electric needle does hurt a good deal, you know. ‘Josephine’s worth it.” Poor old goof.
Same Silly Smile.
“Your hair’s all dried now. Do you want me to dress it? Better have it marcelled, don’t you think? You’ve got beautiful hair; it’d be nice for a change. You’ve done it so simple.”
The heart of the Cub Reporter grew warm in her breast. “Shelf and doughnut” indeed. Here was somebody who appreciated her. As she nodded assent to the marcelling she caught sight of the same silly smile on her face.
“There can’t be three mirrors built wrong in the same way,” she reasoned. “It must be there. Well everybody said I’d be ruined for life if I started working on a newspaper and maybe it’s true.”
“Lots of old men come in to have their bald spots rubbed for hair. And they’re not so old, either. Funny what a lot of young fellows think they’re gettin’ bald. They don’t trust their barbers; barbers have bald heads themselves.
“Talkin’ about hair, did you know that men come in here by the dozen to get waves put into it?”
The Cub Reporter jumped so that the iron burned her ear.
“I’ll tell the world they do. Say, you are an innocent if you think all the curls you see your men friends wearing are made by old Mother Nature.”
“What kind of men come in for curls?”
Even Newspaper Men Do It.
“About all the kind there are. Not so many old men, of course, because they haven’t enough to curl. That old goof with the wart I told you about was trying to make us think he’d heard of some new way of planting hair on a bald pate. Said a doctor told him about it. I’ll say the guy that invents a thing like that is going to have a good chance of dying too rich to get to Heaven. They’d come to us with bags of money.
“I was tellin’ you about fellows that come in for marcels. There’s a newspaper man, works on the (naming a prominent daily), writes poetry or something for it, he’s a regular customer. And men from the Symphony orchestra, lots of them. There’s one comes in that looks like a big black bear; his hair’s kinda curly already, so he gets a water wave.
“I never get surprised at anything that musicians or newspaper people do, though. You expect them geniuses to be sorta foolish, don’t you? But business men come, too. They wouldn’t be ashamed if they met their own wives.
“When I was a kid a boy that had curly hair was ashamed of it. Well, the world changes. Your hair’s hard to curl, miss, it’s so fine. I’ll have to try that wave again. I hope you’ve got lots of time, but you know after you’ve neglected your hair a long time, it’s bound to act this way.
There’s Much to Be Had.
“Your eyebrows ought to be plucked, they’re so thick. They ought to be blackened a little, too. Bein’ so light the way they are, you can’t see them ’less you look close. Your lashes are kinda long, ’s a pity they are so pale.
“I always say a woman owes it to herself to do the best she can for herself, and beauty counts more’n you’d think if you haven’t been out in the world.
“Where’d you say you work? Oh, in an office. Well, I bet you ain’t got any women friends in there that’d tell you what to do for yourself. You keep on getting’ your hair curled, and take my word for it something’s sure to happen.
“Want your hair inside or out? Well, maybe you’re right. It would be kind of hard for you to do yourself with it in.
“Do men come in here to get their eyebrows plucked? You tell ’em, funnybone, you made the hit. As far as I know there’s just one thing they don’t come for, and that’s the rejuveniler treatment that takes away wrinkles permanently. And they say that they get that in Chicago.
Men Are Vainest.
“Vain? Say, the vainest woman that ever lived couldn’t hold a candle to a man when he’s really got woke up to how he looks. The other day I was putting a marcel in an artist gentleman’s hair, and didn’t he go and say to me, right while I was working on him, ‘Ain’t it awful, dearie, how vain women are? I caught you lookin’ in the glass three times.’
“Things like that kinda get a girl’s goat, and I said to him, right sharp, ‘If you hadn’t been lookin’ in the glass all the time yourself I guess you wouldn’t a seen me there,’ I says.
“But that don’t mean anything to him. You can’t phase a man with gall enough to have things done to him in a beauty parlor. Mostly I shut up when they kid me about women’s vanity, but sometimes it gets too much for me.
“There. Now, you do look nice. It won’t matter about the ear that’s burned because that’s under the hair anyway. Do come in again, you’re such a pleasant kind of conversationalist.”
The Cub Reporter looked at herself in a mirror. She was a mass of frizzes and bore some resemblance to a type of flapper she had never cared much about. Her sense of humor struggled with that new silly smile and won.
She Finds Whole Crew.
She went back to the office and walked the length of it defiantly.
But the hoots drove her into the street again.
She went back to the shop she had just left and had a manicure.
A number of men were having them at the same time, and she listened in on the conversations.
“Nobody cares about me at home; I’m only the guy that brings home the bacon, that’s all.”
“How you do go on. There, your wife will enjoy seeing you look so nice.”
And at another table.
“Just keep on talking, girlie, I don’t care what you say, but I like the sound of your voice. I’m tired, and if I go to sleep just wake me up when it’s closing time.”
“Funny thing,” the girl who was doing the Cub’s nails said, “but the guys that come in to have their hands gone over, do it ’cause they’re lonesome more’n because they’re vain. They want somebody to make a fuss over them, as the old song said. That’s our experience here. No, not exactly flirtatious, though I guess maybe they would be if we’d encourage ’em a little.”
And the Cub Reporter was so excited and so anxious to get back to the office with the news that she forgot to look at her back hair, and so betrayed to the hairdresser that she was not quite what she seemed to be.
“All men are vain,” she announced to the Boss.
“Other men,” said the Boss, looking at the crease in his trousers. “I must get another tailor.”
“And women can be made so,” said the Cub Reporter, burying her fingers in the crest of her marcel.
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