The History of My Hair-Raising

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If “Jesus loved the little children” so darn much, as the old hymn proclaims, why did He make little girls curl their hair for Sunday School?  “Suffer the little children . . .”  And suffer we did.brush roller

Every Saturday, my mother would set my hair with horrible brush rollers.

First she’d use the handle of the rattail comb to dig out a hunk of my aggressively straight hair.

Age 6. This is my natural look.

Age 6. This is my natural look.

Then she’d dip the comb end into an aluminum tumbler of stale Hudepohl beer (which wouldn’t stink, so Mom said) and then she’d pull the comb through the section.

Finally, she’d roll the sodden mess on a brush roller and, using her front teeth, pry open a bobby pin  and jam it in, attaching, it seemed, the roller to my scalp.  In a “stitch in time” measure, she stabbed a pink pokey thing into the roller and didn’t stop until she drew blood.

I had a choice:  Mom could wash and set my hair on Saturday morning and take the curlers before I went to bed; or she could set my hair Saturday evening before she and Dad went out for the night, and I’d have to wear the wretched tubes of torture to bed.

Each mode of suffering resided in its own circle of hell.

If Mom curled my hair in the morning, I had to wear the rollers all day, when I biked or went to Woolworth’s or watched Sky King.  There was always the danger that a roller might become dislodged, but that was nothing compared to the humiliation I experienced when I saw someone I knew when I was wired, it seemed, for sound.

capAround the house I was forced to wear a fetching curler cap, a pastel fabric cap alluringly accessorized with cheap nylon lace. If a taller person looked down on my head, it looked like the underpants on Aunt Bea’s backside.

When we went out, Mom would replace the cap with a square scarf folded into a triangle, tying it at the nape of my neck.  Thanks to this shrewd camouflage, nobody even noticed the curlers in my hair, so Mom said.

Wearing the curlers to bed had the advantage of privacy, but that wasn’t worth the discomfort.  The only way to scratch the itch caused by a brush roller was by using the very same roller to scratch.  Well, that, or use one of Mom’s knitting needles to poke down to the site of the itchiness.  Sometimes in my sleep (I told my mother), “Some rollers fell out,” which resulted in a straight section to the left of my part.

I really didn’t realize how much the curlers hurt until I experienced the relief when Mom took them out.  Oh, the ecstasy of digging my fingers beneath the beer-stiff curls and scratching like a flea-bitten dog!  No matter how fiery my head felt, I needed to scratch, and I. Could. Not. Stop!  Mother told me to sit on my hands.

I looked in the mirror to see my head covered in curls:  I had become the Lamb of God!images

Mom used the expensive boar bristle brush to “relax” the curl, and then the rattail reappeared to tease some height into my baby fine hair.  Once coiffed in a goofy mess topped with a poodle’s brow of too-short bangs, Mom anchored the ‘do with a robust spray of Aqua Net.

Sometimes I’d stay with Grandma Mootsie on Saturday nights and go to church

Grandma Mootsie

Grandma Mootsie

with her and Grandpa Gil Sunday morning.  If my hair had not been set that morning, my grooming was left up to Mootsie.

One time she said, not in a mean way but in an I-love-you way, “You look tired, Sugar.  Aren’t you getting enough sleep?”  And then I had my chance to whine about those vile brush rollers Mother made me wear.

Mootsie made this little clicking sound with her tongue, which told me that brush rollers were not the thing for little girls, and she pulled me into her scrawny, bony chest and massaged the back of my head to make the hurt go away.

Mootsie had a solution.  She told me she had used rags to put curls in my mother’s hair when she was a little girl.  This sounded ever so much better than brush rollers, so I enthusiastically assented to a new beauty regime.

Mootsie found an old bed sheet and tore it into strips, then swirled and twisted and tied them in my hair, resulting in a shelf of a dozen little pillows at ear level.

When Mootsie unwrapped my hair the next morning, I was delighted to behold springy, Shirley Temple sausage curls hanging like stalactites from my scalp.  I loved these action toys on my head:  if I nodded my head, the curls looked like they boinged off a trampoline.

When I saw my mother at church, she was furious at my grandmother and embarrassed by my appearance.  I didn’t understand.  Mootsie was a nice grandma.  She even re-ironed all the clothes my mother had packed for me.

Periodically, my mother’s patience with my obstinately straight hair gave out, and she was inspired to give me a “little permanent.”  The product name, “Tonette,” sounds girly and gentle, a little nudge to Nature’s oversights.  But there was nothing delicate in the application of a permanent wave.

There were little plastic rods affixed with elastic bands, and these didn’t particularly hurt, but the smell of the permanent solution nearly knocked you out.  It’s an ammonia stench that makes every one of your nose hairs stand at attention.  I once passed out after a medical procedure, and the nurse used smelling salts to rouse me.  Before I even opened my eyes, I thought, “I’m getting a permanent.”

The idea, according to my mother, was not to get curl, but to get “body.”  Whose body, I wanted to know.  One time my mother gave me a Tonette the night before a Girl Scout Day Camp.  All day, a blistering July day, I wore a hooded sweat shirt . . . to cover all that freaking “body” springing from my Harpo Marx head.

All this for a girl who liked to wear a coonskin hat.

Age 7. I was growing out my bangs because Mom thought my forehead was too narrow for them..

Age 7. I was growing out my bangs because Mom thought my forehead was too narrow for them..

More posts about beauty challenges:

A Letter to a Thin Doctor from a Fat Patient

I see London, I see France

Bra (S)traps

I, Gulliver: Living in a Large Body

Exercise: It’s a Hoax

Copyright © 2016 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved


  1. You’ve brought back lots of memories! I love this line about Tonette perms: “The idea was to get ‘body.’ …Whose body, I wanted to know.”

  2. All that work, just for a little “body.” Yikes! It DOES sound like toture! The worst I had to endure was Bobby pins, 2 crisscrossed above each ear, holding a twirl of hair in place. My mother doesn’t sound as dedicated as yours!

    • Ahh,memories! I had long hair with tangles. Every time I squealed, I got a knock on the next thin with the brush. My sister and I had matching Tonette bobs- both of us had stick straight locks. So humorously expressed in Sandy still le!!

      • That’s noggin, Mr. Autocorrect!

        • OMG! STYLE!!!
          I give up!

  3. HARPO Marx, not “Harper”.

    Enjoyable read!

  4. Yes, the Tonettes….. me, too!! If I can find my fifth grade school picture, I’ll show you my head of curls with side rolls a la Princess Leah. It’s my favorite picture… lol You know, my hair is naturally wavy and has a fair amount of “body” even today, but it wasn’t curly enough for Mom. You see, my sister had (and still has) CURLY hair! Mom would take strands of her hair and wind it around a wooden spoon handle and her hair had these beautiful ringlet long curls just like Shirley Temple!! She couldn’t do that to my head, and so, the Tonette!! Ah, what we do for beauty!!

  5. Been there , done that! But_____only you Sandy can describe torture in such an eloquent manner. Thanks for the memories.

  6. Delightfully written Sandy! Brought back memories of pink sponge rollers and smelly perms.

  7. I think I still have some brush rollers. However, I removed the brushes for cat toys. I then wound my hair on the mesh part which was like sleeping on springy logs. Before brush curlers we had pin curls. I just wanted straight hair! Let’s not forget the orange juice cans to achieve that. I remember getting a permanent in the 80’s when Afro’s were in style. Now, that was the no care style. What is next?

  8. This is quite an intriguing topic. I am always fascinated with how people wer their hair. Also, I am certain it was not Jesus who insisted you curl your hair–it had to be a human who is very particular and hung up on how you look:). I’m glad you seem to have found a style that worked.

  9. Oh Sandy what memories! In my day we had permanents with a metal rounded clamp that fit over the curler with rolled hair and smelly solution applied. Then your head got hot and even started to smoke, at least I thought so. We would stick cotton balls in the areas that got too hot; we’d sit and sit for hours it seemed using tons of cotton balls. The end result couldn’t come soon enough and I would be frizzed all over my head! Needless to say I hated every second of it and looked like something from another planet. The experience will forever be implanted in memory!???

  10. Oooooh… brings back horrifying memories!

  11. I used to get Tonettes too! The first washing after the perm, my hair would be perfecty straight again!

  12. 2nd try: wouldn’t accept my e-mail address. Loved this piece. My mother used a hot iron curler heated on our gas burners. If it got too hot, the curl would just fall off your head or you’d singe your hair. I can still remember the smell of burning hair. Then you had a funny spot on your head. My mother didn’t fuss with her or my hair. My sister taught me to put in pin curls. I was so proud of myself when I was 10 to do this, especially when it was so curly afterwards. Then there was the juice cans I rolled my hair up in high school with the stale beer and sit on a plastic hair dryer cap for an hour, sometimes even sleeping on them. So many hair memories for women.


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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.



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