history of the hair dryer

By Pam Houghton

We’ve come a long way from the 1600s when ladies of privilege sat for hours while personal maids adorned elaborate, tower-like hairstyles with flowers and jewels.

Thankfully, French hairdresser and inventor Alexandre Ferdinand Godefroy simplified the primping process when he patented the first hair dryer in 1888. According to the New York Times, stylish patrons were hooked up “to any ‘suitable form of heater,’ which would send hot air through a pipe to a dome surrounding the woman’s head.”

By the early 1900s, additional experimentation came from an unlikely source: the vacuum cleaner. Men and woman attempted to dry their hair by attaching a hose to the exhaust end, aiming the other side at their heads. Yes, hair could be dried faster than the simple air-drying method, but not by much.

A handheld dryer was not far off. In 1911, Armenian-American inventor Gabriel Kazanjian patented the world’s first blow dryer, although it would be several years before the handheld device would go to market. By the 1920s, handheld dryers were commercially available, but heavier than they are today, frequently weighing two pounds and emitting only 100 watts of heat, hardly enough for the Farrah Fawcett-locks of the 1970s.

Aesthetically, they were also decades away from posh, sleek models found in today’s hair salons: the unsightly appliances made of steel or aluminum had wooden handles with motors located on the outside. It wasn’t until 1954 that manufacturers found a way to hide the motors by moving them inside the devices.

The 1950s also gave birth to the bonnet hair dryer, a small portable dryer connected by a tube to a plastic bonnet, as well as the rigid hood dryer, most frequently seen in today’s salons.

But it was the blow dryer that continued to evolve. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued guidelines in the 1970s to reduce the number of blow dryer-related electrocutions common in midcentury. By 1991, ground fault interrupters were required, which nearly extinguished any possibility of electrocution.

Today’s dryers weigh half as much as they used to — some models less than a pound. Heat wattage has grown, with dryers that emit anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 watts.

Hairdressers are likely the happiest with the evolution. “More efficient airflow and a variety of settings help stylists dry hair faster,” says Felicia Palazzolo Shaw, owner of Felicia Salon in Birmingham, MI. “The newer materials that dryers are constructed with,” thanks to advancements in plastics technology and compact electrical motors, “make dryers lighter and more flexible, causing less carpal tunnel, shoulder and neck pain associated with long-term daily use.”

They are also much quieter. “Noise pollution is eliminated,” says Shaw, “allowing for a more pleasant exchange of conversation” between stylists and their clients.

Perhaps, harkening back to the styling sessions of the 1600s when those crazy, elaborate hairstyles allowed hours and hours for chatting.