A dvertising in the 1950s pushed the limits of good taste — not to mention stereotyping — and Electric Reduction Company (ERCO) ads were no exception. While modern advertising continues to objectify women to a disturbing degree, it is fair to say that no chemical company today would dream of using such overt sexism to sell products, such as this cringe-worthy example.  

ERCO Chemicals, which evolved into ERCO Worldwide, has produced chemicals for well over a century, being formed in Buckingham, Que. in 1897 to manufacture elemental phosphorus for the North American match industry. At the time, ERCO was the only Canadian producer of elemental phosphorus and industrial phosphates. In 1901, it became a subsidiary of the English multinational chemical company Albright and Wilson Ltd.

As this 1950 advertisement from Chemistry in Canada shows, ERCO produced chemicals that stylists could apply to a woman’s hair to alter the natural wave pattern. While hairdressing may seem straightforward, a salon had — and continues to have — many similarities to the chemistry lab, albeit one with fancy mirrors and high prices. 

In order for hair to be altered permanently, a chemical must penetrate the cuticle — the tough exterior layer surrounding the hair shaft — through to the middle cortex. The cortex is responsible for the strength and elasticity of the hair and must be chemically broken in order to change the natural hair pattern. The stylist would carefully assess the pH required, using a highly alkaline compound solution on thick, undamaged hair and a less alkaline one on previously treated locks. (The natural pH of hair is 4.5 to 5.5 and some solutions are as high as 8.2 pH.) All permanent waving lotions have three components: a waving solution, an activator and a neutralizer. The activator usually contains glyceryl monothioglycolate (GMTG), which is known to cause allergic reactions in hairdressers or their clients with repeated exposure. 

ERCO supplied chemicals to more than just the hairdressing sector, including chlorine dioxide technology to the pulp and paper industry. Today, ERCO Worldwide’s chloralkali business serves such industries as municipal and industrial water treatment, food processing, fertilizers, agricultural intermediates and oil and gas. 

Headquartered in Toronto as a division of Superior Plus LP, this Canadian company lays claim to being the second largest producer of sodium chlorate in the world. It also has the world’s largest installed base of modern chlorine dioxide generators and related technology and is the third largest producer of potassium products in North America.