On fourth street near the edge of downtown stands a long, narrow, two-story brick building marked by a well-preserved sign reading PADUCAH BEAUTY SCHOOL. Not much can be seen through its first floor window, but five days a week the building is a-buzz with students learning to bend, twist, cut, and curl hair. And students have been bending, twisting, cutting, and curling hair there, under that very same sign, for over 80 years.
“Our license is license number two,” Paducah Beauty School owner Nelson Young will tell you. “We don’t know exactly how long it’s been here, but we are the second oldest beauty school in the state of Kentucky.”
Nelson—nobody calls him Mr. Young—is coming up on his 40th year with the school this June. Forty years ago he bought the school to fulfill his dream of finally working for himself, and forty years later he wholeheartedly believes he made the right choice. Bigger businesses have bought up and torn down everything around him but him; the long, narrow, two-story brick beauty school with which we’re all so familiar didn’t always stand alone. In his desk drawer, Nelson keeps a photo of the school taken not long before he came into the picture. It looked almost exactly the same, except for the brick buildings to its left and right that have since been demolished and paved over.
People have made offers, but none have found a taker in Nelson. It’s a good business he says. People in Paducah will always have hair (or most will, anyways). All that hair needs to be cut by someone, and those someones have to learn somewhere. For the past 80 years, first under the late Naomi Long, then under Nelson, the Paducah Beauty School has been filling that need.
Mrs. Dickerson, known as “Mrs. O” by many, is one of few folks left in town who remember the school’s beginnings. She graduated from the school in 1950 and continued to work there as an instructor for 42 years. Her career in cosmetology began right as Paducah was booming with the business brought by the uranium enrichment plant.
“When the plant came in the 50s, there weren’t many beauty shops in town,” she remembers. “All these people moved in and there weren’t enough beauty shops to take care of them. At the school, we were loaded with people, honey, just loaded! On Easter, Mrs. Long’s husband would stand at the front door and let five people in at a time. He had to do that or they would all come in and line up clear around and down the place. You couldn’t believe how many people there were!”
Even after the number of beauty and barber shops in town began to catch up with the influx of people needing haircare, business continued to boom at the Paducah Beauty School. As Mrs. Dickerson put it, “Anytime you have a school like that, right on a street downtown, you have a lot of funny things. We had all walks of life in there, from the very wealthy to the strangest people on earth.”
She has stories of fires, of runaways, of soap opera-esque boy-girl dramas, and of police running in one door and out the other on multiple occasions. “It was confusion,” she’ll tell you, “but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Toward the back of the school, past the facial room, the classroom, and across from the dispensary hangs a time clock that the students and instructors use to keep track of their hours. Each student needs to clock 300 classroom hours before she can graduate from working on mannequins to working with real, live heads of hair; 1800 hours total to graduate as a licensed cosmetologist. The time clock the students use now is the very same time clock Mrs. Dickerson used when she was a student in 1950.
And the time clock isn’t the school’s only nod to days gone by. In the classroom hang framed anatomy posters, colored with age, but still teaching students the “Histology of the Skin, Hair and Glands,” and “Nerves of the Head, Face and Neck” with detailed pen-and-ink diagrams. As far as anyone knows, they’ve been hanging in the classroom forever. The layout is the same, though the furniture, floors, wiring and paint have all been updated throughout the years. Downstairs is the student lounge, lovingly called “the dungeon” by some. This is where the practice mannequins hang out until Nelson donates them for Halloween celebrations and haunted houses, and also where the student lockers, fridge, and laundry machines are kept. In the bricks and mortar of the basement’s back wall, you can see the circular outline of a porthole from the building’s pre-beauty school days of housing a telephone company. If you were to remove those bricks, you’d probably still find old telephone wires.
“Honey, when I started, we were on our feet until we left!” Mrs. Dickerson continued. “Sometimes you could eat, sometimes you couldn’t, sometimes you couldn’t even go to the bathroom. We had one instructor, she said, ‘My lord! It’s like working on a railroad!’ It wasn’t easy.”
In a similar fashion, the Paducah Beauty School hasn’t taken a break or called it quits once since it opened its doors in the 1920s, and it did so without complaint, and with a whole lot of spirit.
Even now, Manager Maxine Wilson (who was one of “Mrs. O’s” students in ’72) sounds a lot like her former teacher when she looks back on her 42 years of teaching and working in hair. “It’s a good business, and it’s just an art!” she said from behind her desk in the classroom where she once sat as a student, slightly terrified of Mrs. Long and Mrs. O. She was young, she said, and they were tough, but they taught her to work hard. “I wish I was 20 years younger,” she said, “because my goodness I love it.”
She, too, remembers the days when little old ladies would run through the front door first thing in the morning and race each other to the shampoo bowls, fighting over who would be first. Since taking over as manager, Maxine’s started a sign-in system to cut back on the confusion, but thinking about the way things were still makes her laugh.
Her fellow instructor Rita Aikins hasn’t been in the hair business quite as long, but she shares the same love for her work and her school. “I love doing hair,” she said, “but I think teaching here is probably my favorite part.” She said she loves seeing the students’ transformations. When they first get out on the floor, most of them are scared to death, but by the time they leave, they’re skilled and confident.
One Wednesday in late March, Rita oversaw her student Caitlin’s first human haircut on a man with a wavy head of hair. Caitlin took her time, even though it was just a trim, and when Rita stepped in to check her work the only thing she did was taper the curls around his ears a bit more. A success! For $5, that wavy-haired man walked away with what he said was the best cut he’d gotten in years.
Caitlin’s first cut went well, though mistakes do happen. When they do, Rita said the students are taught the simple mantra, “DON’T PANIC!” and Maxine and Rita are always close and ready to lend a reassuring hand. Just about any mistake can be fixed, even the mistakes that prompt Maxine to start singing bars from Amazing Grace. But patrons, do not fret. Amazing Grace is rarely heard at Paducah Beauty School.
The school usually has between 20 and 30 students studying at any given time, and most of them graduate in about a year. They have class from eight till nine, and at nine the students who have 300-plus hours go out on the floor to work with customers. These days the students see a lot more clients wanting color and highlights or manicures and pedicures, and fewer shampoo-and-sets or perms. They also see many, many more men than they did in Mrs. Dickerson’s day, or even Maxine’s. Now that barber schools are practically nonexistent, the beauty school is one of the few places in town where men can go to get a quick cut without the hassle of making an appointment.
When you talk to Nelson about entering his 40th year with the school, there’s no mention of retirement. He still has his head in the game, and his eye on the next big thing. He’s heard that 150 people will soon be working in the old bank building across the street from the school, and he’s excited.
“I’m sure a lot of them will be women, and that’ll be haircuts, manicures, pedicures, color, highlights,” Nelson said, trailing off. “We do it all, we train it all.” He looked out the front door from behind the front counter, thinking about the prospects: 150 new people downtown on a daily basis, likely all of them with hair.