Marjorie Stewart Joyner (1896-1994): Inventor of a Permanent Hair-Wave Machine
- Invented a permanent wave machine that added curl to straight hair and could be used to straighten curly hair
- Became national supervisor for more than 200 beauty colleges owned by Madame C.J. Walker; eventually joined their board of directors
Marjorie Stewart was born in 1896 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to parents who were descended from slaves. When she was a teenager the family joined the Great Migration, moving to Chicago where so many African-Americans were moving for jobs and a better life.
Before she was twenty, she met and married Robert Joyner, who was studying podiatry. Because Robert was busy with school and studies, Marjorie enrolled at the A.B. Molar Beauty School, and she became the first African-American to graduate from there.
Her First Salon
Upon graduation, she opened a beauty salon on South State Street in Chicago. She soon became sought after for her skill at setting the Marcel wave, a flat, ribbony crimp (a hair style eventually made famous by jazz singer Josephine Baker; 1906-1975).
One day her mother-in-law asked Marjorie to set her hair with the Marcel wave. Marjorie was the first to admit that she was unsuccessful: “She looked like an accident going somewhere to happen,” Marjorie is quoted as saying in a chapter about Marjorie Joyner in Beverly Lowry’s book, Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madame C.J. Walker.
Her mother-in-law, obviously a very gracious woman, told Marjorie, there’s a woman coming to town to teach a class on working with black people’s hair, and I will pay whatever it will cost you to attend the class.
Joyner attended the class and was elated to have the opportunity to learn techniques from Madame C.J. Walker herself. When Walker observed Joyner demonstrating some of her work using the Marcel wave, she offered a Joyner a job, but Joyner had just gotten married and turned Madame Walker down as she wanted to remain in Chicago where her husband was still in school.
Madame Walker did not forget Joyner and kept in touch; finally in 1919, Madame C.J. Walker convinced Joyner to become part of her demonstration team that traveled the country teaching hair techniques. Joyner went on to have a very successful career with the Walker Company.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Joyner’s personal experience in a salon—working with the Marcel wave in particular–led to her recognizing a problem that need to be solved: Anything involving the hair iron was a time-intensive task. Whether heating to straighten or heating to curl the hair, it could only be done one curling iron and one section of hair at a time.
Joyner was fixing pot roast one day and was thinking about the long thin rods that were inserted into the pot roast to hold the meat together, which also served the purpose of heating the meat from the inside. This gave her an idea: What if you could create a device that used many curling irons that could work simultaneously? Then the process could be accomplished in less time for both the beautician and the customer. (The picture on the right provides an idea of what a pot roast holder of the era looked like)
Joyner began to experiment. She hooked 16 pencil-shaped pot roast rods to an old-fashioned hair dryer hood and then joined them together with a single electrical cord and began to examine how they could be designed to function simultaneously.
By 1928, she had perfected her invention and applied for and received her patent for a device that could set an entire head of curls at the same time.
When asked by others how she came up with such an idea, Joyner was always very humble about it: “If I can take pot roast rods and have a one-of-a-kind invention, believe me, people can do what they set their minds to.”
The Market for the Waving Machine
While the device was developed for perfecting the Marcel wave and doing it more quickly, beauticians soon realized there were other ways to use the invention. Shops catering to African-Americans saw that it could be used to soften the kinks out of tightly curled hair, and those that catered to white people found that they could use the device to create all types of curly styles.
Initial sales of the machine were good, but there were complaints and Joyner listened. Women found that the hot irons sometimes touched and burned or pinched their scalps. Joyner set to work again and patented a scalp protector to make the procedure less painful.
Joyner enjoyed a full and rewarding career with the Walker Company, holding many important positions, including that of vice president of the salon division (a chain of 200 salons). Eventually she was picked for a seat on the board of directors.
Though Marjorie Joyner was often honored for her invention, she never derived income from it. As has happened with many other inventors, Joyner was an employee of Madame C. J. Walker’s company at the time the invention was created and patented, and therefore, ownership of the patents belonged to the Walker Company. (Madame C.J. Walker died in May of 1919.)
Full and Active Life
In 1945, Joyner and her friend, Mary McLeod Bethune, president of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida, co-founded an association for beauty school owners and teachers (now known as Alpha Chi Pi Omega). Joyner was also active in Democratic politics and She served as chairperson of the Chicago Defender Charities as well as the Bud Billiken Parade, which also honored African-American causes.
In 1973 at the age of 77, Margaret Stewart Joyner fulfilled another lifelong dream. She attended Bethune-Cookman College and earned a B.S. in psychology.
She died in 1994.
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