The Gordon Beauty Shop was open for 50 years in Junction City, and during that time the owner, widow Mary Ellen Gordon, saw styles come and go, adapted to new beauty techniques, and incorporated expanding technology in the business. Mary Ellen was a widow with two daughters, Vivian and Amy Jane, when she came to Junction City in 1923. Later that year, Mary Ellen opened a beauty shop at 120 W. 4th in the west apartment on the ground floor. Not only did she use this space for her business, but she and her daughters lived in the space as well. In the salon space, private cubicles were curtained off so customers getting facials could have privacy.
By March 1928, she bought a home at 115 W. 4th street where she continued to run her beauty shop. At 115 W 4th, the rooms upstairs were made into an apartment and the ground floor served as the beauty shop.
In the early years of her store, Mary Ellen used rainwater that she collected in a cistern until it was prohibited by law due to new concerns about public health. While using the cistern she pumped the water into the building by hand before heating it in a teakettle on a special one burner gas plate.
In the early years of her store, facials were an important part of business. Not just confined to the face, facials treated the neck, arms and hands as well. But Mary Ellen was primarily sought after for her expertise in marceling. A marcel was a hair style invented by M. Marcel to imitate the natural wave in hair, which was particularly popular in the 1920s and 30s. This style was done with a heated iron. The iron was first tested on a strip of newsprint before the hair was lifted with a comb and the first impression made, little more than an inch from the part of the hair. Then the iron was turned in a flat motion and held loosely in the hair while the comb guided the direction the wave would take. These two movements were repeated all over the head until the hair was waved.
Mary Ellen took great pride in the finished product of her marcel. She waved not only the top layer of hair, as many marcels were done, but every layer of hair. When done correctly, a marcel could be combed and brushed without coming undone. In 1928, Mary Ellen charged 75 cents for a marcel, and $1.25 for both a wash and a marcel. She would do a retrace for 25 cents—which refreshed the marcel at the top. Finger waves were 50 cents and a shampoo and water wave cost $1.00 and perms were $3.00.
Before the invention of the cold wave, permanent waves (perms) were done by a machine that resembled a medieval torture device. The machine had a set number of curl heaters, so depending on the amount of hair, would have to be done a few at a time. These heaters were attached to the machine with long electric wires. To complete the perm process, the hair was wound on curlers with a protective pad next to the scalp. The heaters were then clamped over the curls. The time of heating varied from 7 to 20 minutes according to the machine and texture of the hair. Great care had to be taken to keep the heaters up and away from the scalp in order to avoid burning and even unintentional electric shock!
To see one of these early permanent machines, stop by the Geary County Historical Society and check out the new 1950s exhibit: “He Didn’t Wear a Top Hat.” Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1-4pm. And on April 26, stop by the museum for our first Classic Car Show! A great time to see some classic cars and learn a little 1950s history while you’re at it. Please contact the museum for more information at 785-238-1666.