The Hot Air Behind the History of the Hair Dryer

When the hairdryer first blew into town it was a huge, cumbersome, technological feat. Like hairstyles over the decades, things have changed.
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Imagine using your vacuum cleaner to dry your hair. Possible? Of course. Practical? Not really. Silly looking? Absolutely. In the early 1900s, it wasn’t unheard of for people to go to that extreme in order to get their locks of hair dried as quickly as possible.

Remember, these were the days long, long, before portable vacuums existed. But why the desperation to get a person’s hair dried with something mechanical instead of a towel? Since its professional debut in the late 1800s, the hair dryer (or blow dryer, for some people) has had the ability to look slightly…odd. It’s an invention that has always shamelessly attempted to look like more than it actually is: a tool that allows its users avoid having to reach for a towel after washing their locks.

Looking at the options available in today’s hair care market, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that the engineers behind the modern hair dryer favor designs that lean heavily on what a person might come across as the description of a weapon straight out of a space-based sci-fi novel. That design philosophy has its roots from the early days of hair being blown into style, and chances are good a generation from now people will be looking back at today’s hair dryers and scratching their heads just like you might be looking at the photographic evidence of where plugging in to dry your hair all started.

Imagine using your vacuum cleaner to dry your hair. Possible? Of course. Practical? Not really. Silly looking? Absolutely. In the early 1900s, it wasn’t unheard of for people to go to that extreme in order to get their locks of hair dried as quickly as possible. Those stylishly desperate enough were known to attach a hose to the exhaust end of a vacuum cleaner and aim for their heads.

Image: vintag.es

Remember, these were the days long, long, before portable vacuums existed (in case the concept is sounding relatively reasonable to you). But why the desperation to get a person’s hair dried with something mechanical instead of a towel?

If a finger needs to pointed at someone, start with Alexandre-Ferdinand Godefroy. His “hair dressing device” made its debut in a French salon back in 1888 and began raising hopes that deciding to wash your hair didn’t mean having to book an entire day to dry and style it afterwards.

Before getting too judgemental about the hair dryer’s earliest steps, it’s important to note that prior to devices that ran off of electricity not having your hair towel or air-dried meant holding earthenware jugs of hot water against your head.

Godefroy’s device wasn’t much better than the vacuum idea, although his seated dryer did provide an element of risk for fashionable thrill seekers in that they could potentially cook their head if the device was used improperly. So, like many first steps into uncharted technological territory, Godefroy’s invention became theidea that almost was.

Woman in Beauty Parlor (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Starting in 1915 it became possible to have your hair dried without having to sit under a device that looked like it was designed to extract your brain. While marketed as hand held dryers, these devices were poorly designed and difficult to use – not too mention heavy.

And compared to today’s hair dryers that have upwards of 2000 watts of blustery power behind them, early dryers were cutting-edge if they could reach 100 watts. They were marketed as being easy to use (just push a button!), but they had enough weight to them that having to hold one for an extended period of time could result in overdeveloped biceps.

Source: Ministry of Information – Second World War Official Collection

At the start of the 1950s, beauty salons and hooded hair dryers combined to offer women a place to escape with a purpose. After a decade in the workforce and being key contributors to the war effort on the homefront, women found themselves being relegated to home duty again. Going to the salon to get out of the house became the norm for some, especially those looking to make a statement about their social status.

The bonnet hair dryer, 1965.

Prior to the salon becoming the place to be for women, these old photographs suggest they were more scientific laboratory than a place for style trends to be born.

It was that salon experience that the earliest versions of the home blow dryer tried to mimic. Specifically, the earliest bonnet dryers were touted as still being able to offer what women enjoyed about the salon. With a plastic cap over hair that was promised to be dry in as quick as 22 minutes, women were featured in ads talking on the phone with, we can only assume the ads were trying to suggest, a friend.

Image: vintag.es

The ‘convenience’ of using a hair dryer at home still came at a price cosmetically, with the motors being externally mounted (which remained the norm until 1954) and electrocution always a possibility.

Image: vintag.es

It took until the 1970s (and several deaths from electrocution and injuries from sparking products) that safety regulations for hair dryers were updated.

As has always been the case (but never more evident than with hair dryers, and later hair curlers), electricity and a nearby bathtub full of water just don’t mix.

Image: vintag.es

Early dryers, besides being a potential cause of death, were also clunky — as was to be expected from something pieced together from steel or aluminum and then having wood added to it for a handle.

Image: vintag.es

On the upside, early hair dryers were also marketed as a way to kill head lice, so the somewhat false hope of being both stylish while being lice-free at the same time was definitely a huge selling point. It’s a concept that is still in use today, and as is to be expected the specialized technology being used to blow-fry lice from the heads of both children and adults looks kinda…goofy.

Watch: The History of the Hair Dryer


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