The Hair Dryer, Freedom’s Appliance

For a century, the device has promised more than dry hair. An Object Lesson.

A group of women sit underneath hair dryers and read magazines at a hair salon.
Bettmann / Getty

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.

Early handheld hair dryers were still difficult to use. Their metallic (often aluminum) casings made them hard to wield. Also, drying times were far longer than today’s norm, as the devices drew only 100 watts of electricity compared to the 2,000 watts of modern versions. That made them exhausting to use over the long periods of time required for drying. Some early versions had pedestals to give tired arms a rest. Nevertheless, these dryers were considered a marvel of convenience, marketed as having “loads of hot or cold air instantly. Just by pressing the handle button.”

The handheld versions for the home were joined by hooded models for the salon. Made of metal and later of plastic, and applying an even, all-over heat, hooded dryers entered widespread use in 1930s. In the decades that followed, they became a defining trait of the salon scene.

This was an unsettled time for American women. First they joined the workforce during the war effort, in the 1940s. Later, they were driven back into the home. During these postwar years, the salon became a cherished second space for women outside the home. The task of “setting” hair into the molded hairdos popular in the day, such as Veronica Lake’s cascading S-shaped waves or Grace Kelly’s sculpted bob, required regular appointments at the salon, establishing it as a popular weekly meeting spot. The image of a row of women idly flipping through magazines under a hair dryer hood became a symbol of postwar prosperity and of women’s new leisure time.

In an effort to bring that salon cachet into the home, the bonnet hair dryer debuted in 1951. This model had a soft, shower cap-style headpiece that the user would attach to a motor via a hose. In a Sunbeam commercial from the 1960s, the bonnet dryer was advertised to be “so fast that it actually dries hair in an average of 22 minutes.” These models were also meant to mimic the salon experience: “Just select any one of four temperatures. Then, relax,” the commercial suggested. They came in little handled carrying cases that could be toted around, but typically the user would stay seated in a single spot while hot air circulated. Advertisements frequently showed models chatting on the phone, suggesting that salon-level socializing and the community it inspired wouldn’t be lost if women did their own grooming at home.

Another invention that sprang from hooded hair dryers was the “wave machine.” The hairstylist Marjorie Joyner, known for her talent in creating marcel waves, connected pot-roast rods to a dryer, and mechanized marcelling was born. Hair salons were racially segregated in these years, but the wave device became popular in both black and white salons alike. With this machine, Joyner appears to have become the first African-American woman to secure a patent.

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In the 1960s and ’70s, the sexual revolution left its mark on fashion—and hair. The rigid gender divisions of the previous decades began to soften. Icons like the Beatles and the Monkees were wearing their hair longer in mod “mop tops,” and influencing other men to do the same. That helped spur the counterculture trend of long, hippie locks. Companies moved quickly to capitalize on this potential new hair-dryer market. As one Clairol ad said to its male reader: “Congratulations. You have more hair today than a year ago.” But then it explained to men that the “secret” to mastering this new look “isn’t just more hair. It’s cleaner hair, blown dry—to give it bulk and body it out.”

Hairstylists gained celebrity status in these decades, thanks to stylist-to-the-stars Vidal Sassoon and films like Shampoo, which starred Warren Beatty as a hunky hairdresser irresistible to his customers. Suddenly, a functional grooming tool had sex appeal. The stylist-as-Casanova persona can still be found today, in celebrity stylists like Harry Josh. Miranda Kerr promoted his signature dryer by blowing it across her décolletage during a photo shoot, treating it more like a seductive bottle of perfume than an appliance.

During the ’60s, plastics began to dominate consumer goods, and hair dryers were no exception. Once made from metal or occasionally Bakelite, now hair dryers joined a flood of “fantastic plastic” products facilitated by companies like DuPont and Dow Chemical. But apart from an alteration to its materials and the addition of various attachments and heat conductors, like ceramic and tourmaline, the hair dryer has changed very little since its birth. Writing for Fast Company in 2011, James Gaddy lamented the device’s boring uniformity, complaining that they “all look the same.” Gaddy denounced all models as little more than “a holding pen for the small motor-driven fan and heater inside.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s that regulations were drafted to improve dryer safety. And only as recently as 1991 were these devices legally required to contain ground fault circuit interrupters, which greatly decrease the danger of high-voltage injury or death. Older models still resurface in the news for plunking into bathtubs and electrocuting their owners, as in the case of the young Palomera sisters (ages 7 and 9), who were cooling off in the tub when their old dryer dropped in.

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Hair dryers weave in and out of public and private spaces, making them different from other grooming tools. Hair depilators and eyelash curlers remain hidden behind closed doors. But hair dryers began in public and continue to occupy public space. Some salons will even place a chair in their picture window, putting the hair-drying experience on full display and marketing it to passersby.

In the last decade, hair dryers have taken up public real estate anew thanks to an explosion of hair-drying bars in urban areas that deal exclusively with the washing and drying of hair (no cuts or dyeing treatments). The company Drybar, one of the most popular, has more than 70 locations across the United States and Canada. Styles are modeled on the extremely coiffed looks paraded on the red carpets of award shows and on reality TV. These ultra-manicured hairdos are a status symbol akin to a handbag or diamond ring. Maintaining them requires a commitment of $40 to $50 per week on the impermanence of hairdos that one humid day can dismantle.

But the hair dryer may now be at a crossroads. In 2016, Dyson, the maker of vacuums, fans, and hand dryers, set out to remodeling the hair dryer. As it had done with its Airblade hand dryers, Dyson hopes to revolutionize the market, encouraging more women to take their hair back into their own hands. The company shifted the motor to the base of the dryer, making it smaller and supposedly improving drying time. Though many of Dyson’s changes are more aesthetic than functional, this is a market where looks matter.

At the same time, the fashion pendulum has begun to swing away from high-polish, TV-ready looks toward a more relaxed, no-effort appearance. Celebrities like Alicia Keys have embraced the no-makeup look, and the #iwokeuplikethis movement has reinvigorated a fresher, less preened appearance. Hair might become less conforming and more free and breezy again—which could push hot air out of the public eye and back behind the bathroom door.

I finally succumbed and bought a hair dryer. I had spent years flying out the door with a damp head of hair, but I decided my soggy morning appearance was doing me a disservice. It communicated a certain young, relaxed attitude that went against the professional adult I wanted to become. Years later, I still feel awed that after 10 minutes of fanning a dryer around, my hair can be tamed. Now I see why ads for hair dryers were once laced with a million exclamation points, and showed women who were smitten over their new grooming gadgetry. As one reads, you can store your hair dryer away “or you can keep it out in the open and make a pet out of it.”