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  Shop Owner Survey Beauty Shop Client Survey  





 excerpt by Jennifer Scanlon

The history of beauty parlors in the United States is a rich and, in recent years, well-documented one. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, women who worked on other women's hair transformed their own kitchens, bathrooms, and porches into beauty parlors and in so doing "turned domestic workers and farm girls into successful entrepreneurs." (5) Beauty shops grew in number and in prestige after the turn of the twentieth century, so that by the end of World War I hairdressing had become a middle-class, respectable occupation for black and white women across the United States. (6) Although the numbers most certainly would have been greater had the hundreds or thousands of unregistered beauty spots been included, 5,000 beauty shops were registered in 1920; by 1930, the number had reached 40,000. Even through the Great Depression, the beauty business persevered, in part because of women's entrepreneurial skills in introducing products that could be purchased only in salons. A 1948 survey showed a 37.5 percent rate of beauty shop attendance among women; by 1953 reported attendance had climbed to 52 percent. Importantly, as early as the 1930s, women's participation in beauty culture transcended not only race and region but social class as well. The pursuit of beauty through the services of the beauty parlor came to be considered a necessity for women, by women themselves and by the culture at large. Many women secured "standing" appointments and made hairdressing a regularly scheduled activity. During World War II, beauty shops could be found both on military bases and in factories employing large numbers of women. In fact, wartime factories proved more willing to provide beauty services than childcare. And women's patronization of beauty parlors did not and does not lessen with age: enter a nursing home today and you will almost always find a beauty parlor on site. (7)  

By 1930, the local beauty parlor had become "the women's equivalent of the men's club: the place women went to be with each other." (8) As a small-town, white, Southern girl, Shirley Abbott accompanied her mother to her weekly appointments. "You go there to get your hair 'fixed' but that isn't the real reason, any more than men congregate at the county courthouse to transact legal business," she recalls. "It was an all-female society--no man would dare enter the place--and here, if nowhere else, women said what they thought about men." (9) In black communities, too, beauty parlors played a significant role in girls' socialization. Some scholars have argued that the beauty discipline, in this case, enacts a process by which black women designate hair as "good" or "bad" depending on its perceived proximity to white hair: black beauty, then, never emanates from blackness but gains currency as it moves away from real or perceived African heritage and identity. (10) The beauty parlor plays a role in demarcating difference and imposing disciplinary practices that enforce racism through beauty standards. bell hooks and others, however, remember the beauty parlor not as a discipline into whiteness but as "an important ritual," an instruction in womanhood. "It is not a sign of our longing to be white. It is not a sign of our quest to be beautiful. We are girls. It is a sign of our desire to be women. It is a gesture that says we are approaching womanhood. It is a rite of passage." (11)

Both black and white beauty parlors have provided a sense of community to women and girls, but in black shops the politics of belonging has often been more explicitly affirming of identity. In the South during the civil rights era, news of organized protests and voter registration drives spread through beauty parlors, as these spaces merged two working-class affiliations: the mutual aid society and social club. (12) Myles Horton, civil rights organizer at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, invited black and white beauticians together to teach them organizing skills. His work attracted little notice, as he put it, because no one felt threatened by hairdressing or hairdressers. He sagely understood these women as influential citizens, as independent, community-minded people. As late as the 1990s, civil rights-era posters and portraits could be found still hanging in black beauty shops. A 1990 documentary film, DiAna's Hair Ego, shows the centrality of a black-owned beauty parlor in South Carolina in the contemporary era. The women who own DiAna's Hair Ego facilitate considerable AIDS awareness and education right out of their shop. (13)