My first job, not in a farm setting, was — shampoo girl. The salon, simply named Marie’s, was in a house located a few blocks away from my high school. Patrons would walk up the driveway, tap on the side door and let themselves in. A little bell hung on the side door announced their arrival.
I recall the earliest haircuts with me sitting on a board she laid across the armrests of her chair. Marie was the only person to cut my hair until I reached my early teens. She was a kind lady and I felt very at home at working there. The salon was a dark paneled room with one sink for washing hair, two work stations and three hair dryers. Her business was about people and service, not pizzazz, and everyone was fond of her.
When I think of that time, I hear women’s laughter and the hum of hairdryers. I smell permanent wave solution and cigarette smoke. A heavy glass ashtray adorned every surface. No one had heard of no-smoking laws, and we did, after all, live in a tobacco farming community. I am grateful to my younger self for not adopting the habit like so many of my contemporaries.
My job was straight forward: wash hair; sweep floors; pass curlers and pins, perm rods and papers. There was a large pedestal tray on wheels that was stocked with curlers of differing sizes, arranged by colour. The curler pins were stored, heads at one end of the tray compartment and points at the other.
When Marie was doing a set, I’d pass the correct curler followed by a pin. I imagined that it was like being a surgical nurse. I anticipated what she’d need without her uttering so much as a word, by watching the pattern of curlers and other clues that bloomed as she worked. While the tail of her comb traced out another tidy rectangle in her patron’s hair, I’d hold the next curler or hairpin in midair, ready to place the item in Marie’s palm.
Beauty came at a price for the fiscally conscious who did their hair at home. Drying time was a big factor; wet hair twisted around a curler takes a long time to air dry. Some ladies hastened this process with portable hair dryers like the one shown below. I myself have been the victim of this contraption and remember well the tops of my ears feeling aflame. Consider the restricted range of motion for the woman tethered to a length of electrical cord.
Most ladies washed and set their hair at bedtime, so their curls could dry overnight. Imagine the discomfort of the spiky curler bristles and plastic pins pressing into their scalps when their heads laid on the pillow. I remember my grandmother’s joy at the advent of plastic clip in curlers and ultimately the foam curlers that spared her this test of endurance. Not everyone was willing to contend with the overnight pain. A lady wearing curlers under a black or pink chiffon head scarf was a common sight at the grocery store.
It has been such fun to revisit bouffant hairstyles, backcombing and beehives, but there is a larger purpose behind my stroll down memory lane. One of my larger fiction projects spans the 1940’s to 1980’s. The narrative required a hub for the exchange of community news much like the weekly visit to the general store or the post office in days gone by. Because of my experience, I recognized the small town salon as a perfect device for this purpose.
A number of ladies had a standing appointment for the same day and time each week, year in and year out. This practice provides me with a delicious opportunity to dream up fascinating local characters and maybe — a little trouble — to keep things interesting.
Lead photo: by photographer Ida Wyman/ Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Photo sources for collaged images and additional images can be found by clicking: “Salon” .