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Charles Nessler, Inventor and Hair Entrepreneur

Charles Nessler working on the air of a seated woman

“Mr. Charles Nessler has Invented New Device to Measure Hair.” Smyrna Times, 21 Dec. 1932.

If the name Charles Nessler is not immediately familiar, that is not much of a surprise. Historically minded hairdressers may know about Nessler.

Have you ever used a hair curler or hair crimping gadget? Have you ever had a permanent? If so, you are getting closer to discovering Charles Nessler.

Throughout history, women have dressed their hair using pins, clips, and other accessories both for fashion and for custom and either did their own hair or had servants to do it for them. Over time salons filled with all sorts of gadgets and specialty equipment proliferated. One popular type of gadget was one to curl hair. There were early patents for hair waving machines including ones from Marcel Grateau in 1905 (curling iron – patent 806,386), Francois Marcel in 1918 (hair-waving iron – patent 1,277,739), and Marjorie Joyner in 1928 (permanent waving machine – patent 1,693, 515). Amongst those is where Charles Nessler enters the story; he opened a chain of hair salons and patented a permanent wave machine among other things.

Two women in floor-length gown working with wires attached to the hair of a seated woman

Hair dressing, between 1919 and 1920, National Photo Company.

Charles Nessler, sometimes referred to as Charles Nestle, was actually born Karl Nessler in Germany in 1872. He moved to England where he patented an invention for artificial eyebrows and in 1909, his first permanent wave machine. He made a few upgrades and filed another patent in 1914. Unfortunately, when he moved to the U.S. in 1915, he discovered that counterfeit copies of his machine were already being sold in the United States. In 1919 he filed a patent for a Hair Curler with his company, the Nestle Patent Holding Co., Inc. The image in this post just above this paragraph of a woman attached by her hair and many wires may be one of his machines though I can’t be certain.

three imges one of Nessler working on a woman's hair another with a seated woman attached to one of his machines and another of a woman working on a seated woman's hair

“Beauty Is as Beauty Waves Her Hair, Declares Nestle” Nestle demonstrates his invention. Alaska Daily Empire, 03 Nov. 1924.

Beyond being an inventor, Nessler was also an entrepreneur and opened hair salons in the New York area. I found him listed in a 1918 directory where he had a shop at a pretty prime location at 657 5th Avenue, just a few blocks from Central Park. As the owner, he was cutting and styling hair and journalists consulted him about hair styles. He took his business beyond New York and by the end of the 1920s he had many locations throughout the United States. More modern salon chains like Vidal Sassoon owe a tip of the hat to Charles Nessler. In 1928, C Nestle & Co and Le Mur, a cosmetics manufacturer, merged and became the Nestle-Lemur Company.

Other than the stores and the hair curling machine, he also patented the artificial eyelash machine, a do-it-yourself perm, and a machine that would be able to measure hair on someone’s head. You can see from the following list that he filed quite a few patents in Great Britain and the U.S.

advertisement on Nestle's Revolutionary Invention in permanent waving that features and image of him, a woman with waved hair, a detail of his machine and a lot of text

Evening Star, 23 May 1929.

If you want to know more about the companies, Business Reference does have a guide to researching old companies as well as annual reports for Nestle-Le Mur on microfiche for 1965-1974. Chronicling America is good if you are looking for articles and advertisements. You can search the variants of his names, the various company names, or even company product names like Nestle-Lemur, Circuline, Nestle Baby Hair Treatments, Nestle ColoRinse, etc.

If you are interested in researching the industry in the U.S. today, we have a guide on Doing Industry Research that might be helpful. The Library has several collections looking at hairdressers and beauty shop culture in the U.S. The Occupational Folklife Project includes Hairdresser and Beauty Shop Culture in America that examines shops that service particular communities. There are also many books on hair care and hygiene and other science of hair. All of that is the tip of the iceberg, as you can find books in our collection on a wide range of hair-related topics: beauty shops, beauty operators, African American beauty operators, and beauty culture as well as hair, hairdressing, hairdressing of African Americans, etc.

As for Nessler, beyond his stores and inventions, he also wrote books. The Story of Hair; its Purposes & its Preservation was published in 1928 and Our Vanishing Hair was published in 1934. Nessler died in New Jersey in 1951, and his obituary in the Evening Star indicated that Mrs. Edith Wilson, wife of President Wilson, had once been a customer.

Nessler wasn’t the last word on hair inventions. Styles change and technology continues to evolve and expand the possibilities of what devices are invented.

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