Perms and Penmanship

Sara at age 15, unpermed.

“I got my first permanent wave in the eighth grade and was so proud of it after all those years of straight hair and bangs. Getting a permanent was a real ordeal in those days and they really burned your hair and made it very frizzy. When I got to school my English teacher, Lizzette Sandifer, greeted me with ‘Ha, ha, look at the frizzy hair.’ That did it and I was glad when some of the frizz left. Sometimes Mama would let us go across the street and get Mrs. McDaniel, a neighbor, to set it in waves. She would charge us twenty five cents to fix it.

A beauty-parlor permanent wave machine from the 1930s.

“Our study hall teacher was Miss Gertie Toler. She was a big fat redheaded woman and very strict. She also taught writing and would stand in front of the class repeating, ‘Push, pull, oval, oval,’ but we did at least learn proper penmanship from Miss Gertie.

A Palmer Penmanship classroom

“I wasn’t in the study hall but some of the other kids who were never stopped talking of the day when Miss Toler went to the restroom and came out with her skirt tucked in her long pink bloomers and everyone started snickering. How embarrassed she must have been!

“Every day Miss Gertie would let us line up by the door to be ready to leave when the lunch bell rang. One day when I was at the head of the line someone dared me to lead them out before the bell rang, which I promptly did. We got out all right but when I returned after lunch I was called in and told that I would have to stay after school every afternoon for a week as punishment.”

This escapade was about as rowdy as Sara got, at least to hear her tell it. She had wispy hair that refused to cooperate all her life, and as it grayed it just got more unmanageable. She had a little rusted Sucrets box full of old-time bobby pins, and each morning she would sit on the bed with a makeup mirror and work her hair into pincurls. After she died, I somehow let that Sucrets box disappear, and my niece Jenny has yet to forgive me for that oversight.

Occasionally, her frustration with her own efforts would reach a crisis point and I would get a phone call, “I have to go to Bertine and get something done with this hair, right now.” Bertine Shaw, God bless her, has run the Beauty Den on Howard Street forever and is a miracle worker of the first degree. When Sara moved to Indywood, one of her favorite perks was having an in-house beauty parlor. Unfortunately, she thought this was a free service and was scooting down there on a daily basis. I just paid the bills each month and never told her otherwise.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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2 Responses to Perms and Penmanship

  1. Melanie Liles says:

    I have Mamie’s Sucrets box. I didn’t know it was Sucrets, because everything is rubbed off the box. It still has her bobby pins in it. I treasure it. Melanie

  2. Mary Emrey Ellis says:

    I was remembering Mamie’s box of bobby pins as I read this. I had no idea you still had it.

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