Permanent Wave Machine

A revolution in the beauty industry occurred during the early 1920s when a group of female African American inventors developed products and processes with black women’s particular needs in mind. The aim was to help them to feel good about their looks and begin to improve their societal status in the United States and around the world.

Marjorie Stewart Joyner was one such woman. A granddaughter of a slave and a white slave-owner, she was born on October 24, 1896 in Monterey, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains area of the state. She moved to Chicago in 1912, and shortly thereafter, she began studying cosmetology. In 1916, she became the first African American graduate of Chicago's A.B. Molar Beauty School. That year, at the age of 20, she married podiatrist Robert E. Joyner and opened her salon.

In Chicago, Joyner met another well-known and influential beautician and businesswoman, Madam C.J. Walker, who had invented the Walker Hair Care System and opened beauty schools around the country. Walker died in 1919, and a year later, Joyner joined Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Colleges as the national supervisor. In this position, Joyner oversaw more than 200 beauty schools.

A few years later, Joyner came up with a groundbreaking device of her own, the permanent wave machine. At the time, African American women were accustomed to straightening their hair using very hot curling irons. The process was very slow and uncomfortable because only one iron would be used at a time. Joyner thought that there must be a way to improve upon this.

The idea came to her while she was making a pot roast in her kitchen one afternoon. She looked at the roast, which was being held together and heated from the inside with several long, thin rods. She envisioned a similar system that would use several rods hung above a client’s head to roll several sections of her hair at once. Then, they could be heated up to “cook” a permanent wave or curl into her hair. A hairstyle like this, she knew, would hold for at least a few days.

In 1926, she began experimenting with actual pot roast rods and an old-fashioned air dyer hood. Soon she had a feasible prototype. She patented the invention in 1928, receiving U.S. patent No. 1,693,515. In 1929, Joyner also patented a scalp protector to make the procedure more comfortable. Her rights to this and to the “Permanent Waving Machine” were assigned over to Madam Walker.

Joyner’s invention was readily adopted by salons, which were able to help both black and white clients to straighten or curl their hair.  Joyner didn’t receive any substantial compensation for her invention, but she has said that this never bothered her. She continued to break ground in the beauty industry, co-founding the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association in 1945. That year, she also founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity to help raise professional standards for beauticians. At the age of 77, she decided to go to college. In 1973, she was awarded a bachelor's degree in psychology from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Throughout her life, Joyner was dedicated to community service as well. She was active in her church, with beauty industry trade organizations, and with outfits such as Defender Charities in Chicago.

She died on Dec. 27, 1994, at the age of 98.