The History of Hair Relaxers

by Cicely A. Richard

The history of hair relaxers began more than 100 years ago, changing the way African-American women take care of their hair. These products help straighten naturally kinky or curly hair, making it manageable. Hair relaxers have changed from their original incarnations, reducing the amount of lye, so they don't damage or burn hair as easily. The creator of the first hair relaxer was one of the most prolific inventors of the latter part of the 19th century.

Garret A. Morgan

The first hair relaxer was invented by Garret Augustus Morgan, Sr., who was born in 1877 in Paris, Kentucky. At a young age, Morgan, the child of former slaves, excelled in school and always had an eye for inventions. Like many African-American children, though, he ended his formal education after elementary school to work on the family farm. Eventually, he left Kentucky and headed for Cincinnati, working and getting assistance from a tutor to continue his studies in English grammar.

Inventions

Before creating hair relaxers, he invented many objects we use for public safety, such as three-position traffic signals. He also invented safety hoods and smoke protectors. The idea for hair relaxers came from working on sewing machines in his workshop. He found that chemicals used to repair sewing machines relaxed the curls of kinky hair. His first live test subject was an Airedale dog, a breed that has naturally curly hair. The dog's hair successfully uncurled. The same results occurred when he tested the chemicals on his own head.

Hair Refining Company

In 1913, Morgan founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. The company's premiere hair relaxer product, G.A. Morgan's Hair Refiner, was based on the alkaline chemicals used to straighten hair in his home workshop. This singular product spawned other hair-care products, such as dying ointments and other hair processing creams. He even created the curved-tooth pressing comb. Because most soap used in the early 20th century contained lye, the mixture of alkaline chemicals and lye had to be washed and combed out completely to prevent hair damage.

Lye Relaxers

African Americans noticed the way their hair changed with the combination of alkaline hair relaxer and lye soap used to wash hair. However, it wasn't until 1971 that lye relaxer was officially produced commercially. Proline, the manufacturers of Dark and Lovely, manufactured the first official lye relaxer, which consisted of sodium hydroxide, water, petroleum jelly, mineral oil and emulsifiers. The lye straightened hair by weakening the internal protein structures of the hair, loosening the natural curls.

No-Lye Relaxers

In the late 1970s, African-American women and haircare product manufacturers began noticing the damaging effects of lye-based hair relaxers. Lye stripped proteins from hair, leading to breakage and thinning hair. In 1981, Johnson Products Company, Inc. introduced Gentle Treatment, the first no-lye hair relaxer. Instead of lye, their hair relaxer used less harsh alkaline agents, such as potassium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide. At the turn of the century, many hair relaxers, such as Soft & Beautiful, began creating herbal and botanical hair relaxers for African Americans.

About the Author

Based in Tucson, Ariz., Cicely A. Richard has been writing since 1996. Her articles have been published in the “Arizona Daily Star” newspaper and “ForeWord Magazine.” Richard earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and journalism from Louisiana State University. .

Photo Credits

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