Beauty Salon of the 50s

Beauty conscious women avail themselves of salons catering to hair, skin, and nails. We know what those services are now. What were they like half a century ago?

My mother was a licensed beautician, entrepreneur, and small business owner. She had a ‘beauty shop,’ as she called it, in the late 40s, 50s, and early 60s. What follows is the hair service she offered in her shop.

Shop vs salon

Let me be clear. My mother’s place was a shop: Not a salon, not a spa, not a boutique or other pretentious name for the business. It was a shop, spelled just like that, not ‘shoppe,’ which connoted some superficiality it didn’t have.

Furthermore, it was located in a small New Jersey town, on the second floor above the movie house on Main Street. That movie theater was where I got my very first kiss, but that’s another story.

Ladies hair

The shop’s services for women’s hair included shampoo, cut, set, permanent waves, and hair dyeing and bleach.

It is the shampoo that distinguishes the beauty shop from the barber shop. A barber never shampoos men’s hair before cutting. And, of course, the beauty shop had no male customers. A guy wouldn’t be caught dead in my mother’s shop, unless it was the towel guy or the products supplier.

Two bucks

A shampoo and set cost $2.00. I can’t believe my mother worked for so little. But that was the going price, and plenty of ladies came regularly each week for their shampoo and set. Oh, and no neck massage or other foo foo services did one get with a shampoo and set. You got a nice hairdo at the end, and that was that.

Set and dry

The set used bobby pins to hold the pin curls. Rollers had not yet been invented. Shampooed wet hair was divided into small sections. The hair from each section was wound skillfully around two fingers and held in place with a bobby pin.

With a headful of wet pincurls, one was obliged to sit under the hairdryer for half an hour. This hairdryer was a large metal stand-alone contraption into which one put one’s head. It looked like a helmet for lounging on the moon and preceded the handheld variety of hairdryers we have today.


The shop offered permanent waves. My own experience with them was too early and too frequent. Being the daughter of a beautician meant that my hair was always too straight for my mother’s liking. I had more permanent waves before I was five than anyone I know. Well, maybe my sister. She was older and presumably withstood the burned scalp one endured from the strong permanent wave chemicals in those days. The scabs in my scalp were intolerable, especially for a first grader.

Blonde, brunette, or red

The shop offered hair coloring that went anywhere from platinum blonde to jet black. Coloring was big then, although they didn’t call it that. It was either dyeing or bleaching–taking color out and/or putting it in.

These were the days when Marilyn Monroe graced the big screen. It seems everybody wanted to be a platinum blonde. My sister, being older, had my mother bleach her hair to nearly colorless. Little did we know our hair would turn this color naturally in our later years.

For me in those days, it was only a blonde streak down my long light brown hair. The streak, however, was installed when I was 12. I had that streak until the rest of my hair matched it in those later years I knew nothing of in my youth.

Of those days in my mother’s shop, I remember a particular customer. Every month, she had the roots touched up on her fire-engine red hair. She was an elderly school teacher, and all I could wonder was whether any of her students thought it was her natural color.

Closed up shop

The beauty shop had a good twenty year run. It closed down when business slowed to a trickle, especially when the late sixties brought in blunt-cut, blow-dried hairdos, if anybody washed or cut their long straight hippie hair at all.

It was disappointing to see my mother lose her business and profession, but she was the reason for my hair looking good in my youth. I did swear off permanent waves forever, however.

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