Black History Beauty Trend: The Jheri Curl

Did you know that the Jheri Curl, worn so proudly by the Jacksons, Ice Cube, and your crazy aunties and uncles, was invented by the son of Irish immigrants? Yep–‘the curl’ was made by a white man!

Born as Robert William Redding in Rantoul, Illinois in 1907, Redding’s interest in the beauty industry began during the Great Depression when he realized that hair stylists and makeup artists had the best paying jobs (even in the midst of great poverty, folks were still getting their hair did–heyyyy). As a young man, he taught chemistry and worked as a hair stylist eventually becoming one of the first men to get a cosmetology license. When the products he was using did not meet his expectations, he began experimenting with chemicals and mixed them with household items like mayonnaise and vinegar to create his own shampoos. Later on, it was Redding who brought the pH balance factor in when it came to shampoos and invented the first creme rinse conditioner. He also started hair companies Redken, Nexxus, Jheri Redding Products Company, and Jhirmack some of which are now owned by other brands.

While permanent waving had been a popular technique since about 1872 when Marcel Grateau developed a tool that would curl the hair, it was widely done on clients with straight hair. It was Jheri Redding who first started to experiment with permanent waving on excessively curly hair using small toothpicks for rolling the hair. And thus the Jheri Curl was born and every pillow in African American households around the United States became saturated with the juice.

A jheri curl was a two-part application that consisted of a softener (often called a “rearranging cream”) to loosen the hair and a solution to set the curls. The rearranging cream used pungent chemicals, causing the naturally tight curls to loosen and hang. The loose hair was then set on perm rods and a chemical solution was then added to the hair to permanently curl it.

Perming the hair was time and labor-intensive and expensive to upkeep. The harsh mix of chemicals required for the process caused the wearer’s natural hair to become extremely brittle and dry.

To maintain the look of the jheri curl, users were required to apply activator and heavy moisturizers daily and to sleep with a plastic cap on their heads to keep the hairstyle from drying out. These products were relatively expensive (a typical bottle of activator was small, retailed anywhere from $3 to $6, and was quickly depleted.) The activator in particular had the undesirable side effect of being very greasy; this would often stain clothing and anything that came into contact with it.

Washing the hair cleansed it of the styling products but also exposed the damage done to the hair by the chemical process. Also, as the hair grew out, the wearer would be forced to return to the hair salon for a touch-up, further adding to the overall expense. The hairstyle went out of fashion by the mid 1980’s and was replaced in part with the hi-top fade haircut.

Sources say the Jheri Curl was out of style by the mid-1980s, but we all remember that classmate or neighbor who lit up rooms with the aroma of their curl well into 1995 and beyond. But the Jheri Curl did have a good run while it lasted. Who can forget iconic curl wearers like Ashford & Simpson, Rick James, Eriq LaSalle, Easy-E, the family that owned fictional company ‘Soul Glo’, and the curl of all curls worn by the late, great, legendary Michael Jackson.

What are your fondest memories of the Jheri Curl?

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*Just for fun:

Soul Glo Commercial

Randy Watson, Sexual Chocolate