I used to scandalize my friends with this confession: “I don’t own a hair dryer.”
It was as if I’d told them I ride a horse to work. But their surprise was justified: 90 percent of U.S. homes own a hair dryer. They come standard in most hotel rooms. The hair dryer is tangled up with the history of fashion, the evolution of women’s roles, and the development of gendered social spaces.
In the beginning, the hair dryer wasn’t a home appliance. In 1888, Alexandre-Ferdinand Godefroy debuted his “hair dressing device” in a French salon. It wasn’t pretty: His dryer was a clumsy, seated machine, resembling a vacuum cleaner—essentially a giant hose connected to a heat source. At the time, women wore their hair long and looped, or curled into elaborate updos. For formal occasions, they might have ribbons, feathers, or flowers woven into their locks. Godefroy’s invention aimed to speed up the labor involved with these creations. But his machine failed to circulate air effectively, so the time saved wasn’t significant. The prototype was far too unwieldy to become widespread anyway.
Hair dryers didn’t take off until the first handheld units became available, in the early 1920s. These metal, gun-shaped models arrived right when women’s hairstyles were shifting from the mountainous piles of Gibson Girl curls that required dozens of bobby pins to the tidy, easier-to-shape bobs of flappers. It was a radical break from past styles. As Rachel Maines, a technology historian at Cornell University, explained to The New York Times, “Having clean, shiny, fluffy hair—that’s a 20th-century thing.” This new trend was also happy news for the hair dryer. Dirty hair could hide in a pompadour, but a shorter ’do that hung free would reveal limp or stringy hair.