Why you should care
X-rays can kill you. But these women didn't know that.
Visiting Albert C. Geyser’s Tricho salons was an almost mystical process. The client — usually a woman wishing to rid herself of unwanted body hair — would sit in front of a mahogany box with X-ray equipment inside, visible through a small front window. That window was adjusted to the size and shape of the area of skin to be treated. The operator turned a switch, and the client could hear, perhaps, a whirring sound of electricity being generated. Perhaps they could smell a distinctive, ozone-y scent. But within three to four minutes, the procedure was finished.
Unfortunately for the women who used Tricho salons and others who used X-rays to remove hair in the early part of the 20th century, that was hardly the end of the story.
X-rays were discovered in 1895, and by 1896, the medical journal The Lancet had published an article proposing them as an alternative to beard shaving. By the early 1900s, there was scientific consensus that they were dangerous. The use of X-rays as a hair-removal method began around the turn of the 20th century — one pioneering doctor in France promoted it as a cure for ringworm — and the practice persisted in commercial salons for about five decades, long after the scientific community had learned the cancer-causing dangers of X-rays. Geyser, a physician whose Tricho salons were one of the most popular places to get such treatments, opened at least 75 clinics across the United States. The feted X-ray expert and inventor of the Cornell Tube (which allegedly kept the X-rays from burning clients) claimed in an address to a medical gathering in 1925 that he had found a way to manage the radiation dosage while still removing hair — even though a standard method of measuring the dosage would not even be developed for another few years.
X-rays today used in medical imaging are used in such small, controlled doses that they’re considered safe. But at the time, there was little public understanding of how they could interact with the human body — and limited scientific understanding of their long-term dangers — and Geyser’s clinics flourished. The 20th century saw an increasing emphasis on a beauty ideal for women that was hairless. But methods of getting rid of that hair, like shaving, waxing, applying sulfides or electrolysis, were often painful or unpleasant.
The X-ray method, including the Tricho System, “bypassed the inescapable physicality of all other hair-removal technologies,” writes Rebecca Herzig, a historian at Bates College who has studied the historical use of X-rays for hair removal extensively. Even the American Medical Association (AMA) agreed in a 1947 paper that “the immediate results of radiotherapy for hypertrichosis are always good.” Herzig estimates tens of thousands of women across the U.S. and Canada may have taken X-ray treatments.
The X-rays, though, turned out to be the first technology with a “built-in time bomb,” writes Yale historian Bettyann Kevles in her book on medical imaging, Naked to the Bone.
While there have been few studies on the long-term effects of this practice, research on 368 patients in New York in 1970 found that more than 35 percent of the radiation-induced cancers in women could be traced to X-ray hair-removal practices.
Far earlier, doctors had started to notice symptoms in women who visited such clinics, including lesions and skin cancer. By 1929, the AMA condemned the Tricho Institute for its dangerous practices, and the company had shut down by the following year. But the association also received and archived letters from the women who had undergone the Tricho treatments and their copycats, which had innocuous names like Short Wave Treatment, Epilax Ray or Light Treatment.
“[The letters] are full of fear and anger and confusion,” Herzig explains of the handwritten missives penned by women experiencing symptoms after a treatment their salons claimed was completely safe.
“I am working for quite a small salary now and have saved every penny I could, denying myself luxuries that all girls love toward trying to get rid of this unwanted hair, and believe me saving this money was quite an effort as things at home are quite bad,” wrote one young woman in 1933. “But I cannot go on as I am now, as I am miserable through a freak of nature and I have more than once thought of putting an end to my misery.”
One of the Tricho advertisements claimed “Nothing but a ray of light touches you”; another in a Boston paper from 1928 asked clients to imagine the “joy of freedom from depilatories or razors.” Even earlier, in 1910, a specialist claimed the X-rays would remove the need for the electric needle. In the advertisements, there was a call to science as an emancipatory force, a gateway to modernity. This may have appealed to working women and immigrants who sought to socially elevate themselves.
In one 1954 letter written by a Tricho client, the belief in science as a potential cure still burned. “I have been wondering if there be some new medical discovery which might help me,” the client wrote. “There are so many wonderful things happening these days.”