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Wednesday, Sep. 17, 2014

When a perm was five dollars

Posted Sunday, October 21, 2012, at 8:48 AM

(Photo)
Yes, this photo is from 1930, but there did exist a Dexter hair salon that used the octopus-like hair curling device as late as 1953! Am I, yours truly, the youngest living victim of this ancient torture device?
A trip into the past

This week, I've had occasion to recall a harrowing experience from my past. The year must have been 1954 or 55. My family was living in the old library-building-to-be on Elm street in Dexter. I think I was in the seventh or eighth grade.

My mom unwisely sent me, with my 2-year old sister Kathy, to get haircuts and perms downtown. The shop was run by a lady named Melba and was on Walnut Street, somewhere down the street from the bank (which was on the corner, of course.)

Never having been there before, I saw the letters "Beauty Shop" on a door, so I led my sweet little sister, with her long, gorgeous hair, up the wide wooden steps to her doom, little realizing what lay before us.

Reaching the top of the stairs, I found that I still had to find the shop at the end of the hall.

I was uneasy, because the large room I entered had no occupants, except for an older lady with black hair and a nervous manner.

When I asked, "Are you Melba?" the lady stammered out, "Uh...yes!"

"My mom sent us for haircuts and perms. She wants my sister to have a 'poodle' hairdo," I said, repeating my mother's instructions.

While I sat in an uncomfortable chair, this "Melba" imposter began to work on my sister's hair.

I surveyed the room. To the best of my memory, the floors were tile or linoleum. It was nearly bare, except for an frightening octopus-like machine, hanging from a metal bar over a chair. It looked like something out of a science fiction horror movie.

I found myself thinking, "Please don't let her hook me up to that machine!"

Alas, after she had finished my little sister's "poodle," she turned to me with an "I'm-the spider-you're-the fly" smile.

Sure enough, my beautification process, unlike my sister's, did include an interminable time under the octopus creature, where my scalp soon began to burn.

At this point, Mrs. Skaggs (as, I later learned was this person's name) came over and BLEW on the offending fiery curl.

Before I was ready for the final "styling" process, I heard my two younger brothers shouting in the hall outside the beauty shop. Having found me, they said that Mom was looking for us, because we had never arrived at the right beauty shop!

"She's up here, Mom!" they shrieked. Little monsters....

Mother soon followed them, her face like a thundercloud.

"Oh, boy, I'm in for it now!" I thought.

She glared at me, then old lady Skaggs, who seemed to shrink and visibly retreat to a corner, like a hermit crab.

Snatching my little sister up, she informed me that I was to walk home after I was "done." I cringed.

"Oboy," I thought. "I'm gonna get it!"

I sat in a miserable silence, as Mrs. Skruggs combed out my crisp, burned hair and formed FINGER WAVES and curls into lovely 1930s style that would have done credit to Greta Garbo.

No, I'd seen photos of Miss Garbo, and HER hair did not look dry as a haystack.

The walk home down Stoddard Street was an agony. I longed for a headscarf to cover up a hairstyle that had gone out of style 20 years earlier. I prayed that I would not see any kids my own age. Needless to say, I walked on the opposite side of the street from the drugstore, where the "cool" kids hung out in the booths, drinking fountain sodas through long straws.

At home, we discovered that it was impossible to wash out the stiff permanent curls. It was equally difficult to get a comb through all my burned tresses.

As for my little sister, with her long flowing locks, shorn off, and her hair chemically burned, she was a sad sight.

I never lived down the shame and humiliation of that disastrous turn into the wrong door. I may not have received a whipping for my transgression, but the mental punishment was enough to haunt me for years.

I discovered only this week that my sister bore me no animosity for my misstep. She told me just this week, when the subject came up, that Mom should not have sent me to an unfamiliar place by myself.

Thank you, Kathy.I appreciate your vote of confidence. Of course, my sister has always been there when I needed her.

Yesterday, I took a little field trip to see if I could find Mrs. Skagg's old shop. The bank building now houses The Gallery. In back, I found a door leading to YHC TV, a local television studio. There were stairs, but they were half the width of the ones I remember; these new stairs wound around to a landing and then continued up to the studio, where a nice young man named Travis gave me a tour.

There was no sign that my mystery beauty shop of torture had ever existed, but I did see doors with frosted glass windows, labeled "Dentist" and "xray."

I kept peeking into remote corners, hoping to see my old octopus friend, but, alas, he was nowhere to be found.

Was my trip into a 1930's hair salon all a dream?

I guess we'll never know, as everyone who could confirm that nightmare is gone. My sister was too young to remember, and my brothers have moved on. My mother, God rest her soul, was never able to talk about the incident without going into one of her tirades--and who wants to risk that, after all these years??

As I look at the old photo I retrieved from the wonders of the internet, I can only shake my head in amazement at the lengths to which we women will go to make ourselves "beautiful"!


Comments
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My cousin told me that these were called "machine perms." She remembers getting one, and the curl FELL OFF, when the beautician unhooked it from the machine!!!

-- Posted by goat lady on Wed, Oct 24, 2012, at 10:17 AM

Oh, oh, oh! I am so relieved to get this first-hand information to confirm that I was, indeed, not dreaming! I suspected that I had not gone down the street far enough, thus falling into Mrs. Scruggs' evil clutches! I'm sure she never knew the troubles that this innocent incident caused me over the years. Any time the subject of how CUTE my little sister was, my mom brought up the fact that I had darned near "ruined" her life and given her an inferiority complex for the rest of her days!

Thank you, Melba, for setting this matter straight in my mind!

I should have known that a beauty shop as popular as Melba's would never be on an upstairs' floor!

-- Posted by Madeline1 on Mon, Oct 22, 2012, at 1:15 PM

I remember going to this shop with my mother and the smell of burning hair. Thankfully, I had natural wavy hair and never had a perm. I believe her name was Verna Scruggs and Melba Walker Thurston had a shop on the ground level just a few feet north.

-- Posted by rodgersmelba on Mon, Oct 22, 2012, at 12:55 PM


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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net or by phone at 573-722-5322.
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