Learn about Life in the 1920s

The History of Marcel Waving

The Marcel Wave (sometimes spelt Marcelle) is a stylish wave given to the hair by means of heated curling irons. Named for Francois Marcel, 19th century French hairdresser who invented the process in 1872. It revolutionized the art of hairdressing all over the world and remained in vogue for over fifty years, making a fortune for Mr Marcel. Originally known as the "Undulation Marcel", the name evolved to the "Marcel Wave".

Marcel Wave Book
Marcel Wave Lessons

The irons were made by L. Pelleray of Paris and exported world-wide. The original irons were heavy tongs with rounded internal surfaces that had to be handled by an operator trained in knowing how to make a deep natural looking wave, and not a round curl. The tongs were heated over a rectangular shaped gas burner about six or seven inches long and two inches wide. As you can imagine, with such primitive equipment it was hard to maintain the correct temperature for the iron - too cool and the wave did not set, too hot and the hair got burnt. The hairdresser tested the iron on a piece of paper before using it on a clients hair. If the paper burnt, the iron was too hot!

However by 1924 electric waving irons were available where the temperature of the iron could be regulated. Marcel irons initially came in four sizes - A, B, C and D and were used according to individual preference, but in 1933 an adjustable iron was developed. The iron was used in conjunction with a comb.

Today, gold-plated and ceramic marcel irons are available to hairdressers which remove most of the risk and problems associated with the early irons.

MARCEL WAVE IRON AND COMB NOTE: There are conflicting references to Marcel's full name. Some sources refer to him as Marcel Grateau, others to Francois R. Marcel, and an obituary that says Francois Marcel Grateau! (see below)

Marcel started out with a small salon in Montemarte, France in the 1870's where his clients were the poorer classes. As he developed the waving method that would later become the Marcel Wave, he struggled to find customers to practice on. He was forced to offer free hairdressing initially in order to refine the process and build experience. Once others saw the beautifully waved hairstyles of his early models he started to experience an increase in custom and was able to start charging for his service. Poorer clients would come to Marcel's salon while he performed house calls for his richer clients.

Marcel's big break came when he styled the hair of popular actress Jane Hading with his waving technique, generating enormous publicity which he promptly capitalized on.

In an endeavor to find out Marcel's correct name I checked out U.S. Patent records. The earliest record I could locate was a 1905 patent for a variation on the original marcel iron assigned to Francois Marcel Woelffle of New York, N.Y. In 1918 a patent was granted to Francois Marcel for an electric marcel iron. A note in the patent application indicated that he had legally changed his name from Woelffle to Marcel (possibly between 1905 and 1908). Name changes by immigrants during this period were quite common as they endeavored to fit in with the American way of life. Later patent applications in 1923, 1925, and 1927 under the name Francois Rene Marcel show that he also adopted the middle name Rene.

Marcel went on to develop a permanent waving machine that was used in hairdressing schools and parlors for many years. These early perms were very expensive. He also developed other specialized hair waving equipment including hair curlers (1921), portable permanent hair wave machine (1923), perming pads (1925), an improved marcel iron (1927), curling pin (1927), hair waving device (1927,1928), flexible mica sheeting (1930), improved marcel iron (1932), adjustable marcel iron (1933), steam hair waving device (1933), croquignole permanent wave device (1935,1937), permanent wave device (1935), barber's hair cutting clippers (1938), and a hair cleaning comb (1939). Although some of these patents were granted after Marcel's death in 1936, they were applied for years before.

An international celebration took place in London, England, on the 28th July, 1908. The "Fete Marcel" in honor of the the famous inventor of the "Undulation Marcel" took place at Kings Hall, London. Over 500 visitors were in attendace to welcome the great master.

Another more gigantic fete was given in Marcel's honor in 1922. A 9 day fete was held at Luna Park (Port Maillot) in Paris, France together with a great exhibition and festival from October 9th to the 17th.

OBITUARY: June 15, 1936. Died. Francois Marcel Grateau, 84, French coiffeur who in 1872 invented the hair-waving process that bears his name (Marcel); of old age; at the Chateau du Theil, near Bernay, France. Famed overnight when he waved the hair of a celebrated actress with curling tongs reversed, he exploited his popularity, amassed a large fortune, retired to a 500-acre country estate.



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