Artifact Corner: Victorian Curling Iron

Hi Everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at this all metal curling iron or curling tong. This is from the late Victorian period, and was designed to curl your hair. Hair styles in the late Victorian period were voluminous, and curls were tres chic. But, if you weren’t born with naturally curly hair, you needed a way to remain in vogue, so, the curling iron or curling tongs were invented. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of curling irons, and women curling their hair.

Women and men have been curling their hair for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, curling tongs have been found in serval tombs. In Greece, damp hair would be wrapped around smooth straight sticks in order to achieve the much desire cork screw curl. The Romans also liked their hair curly, but they decided to use heat to curl their hair. They used hollow metal rods, called calamistrum, which they would heat in a re, and then roll them in their hair. We don’t know much about women’s hair styles during the early Medieval period, but we know that curly hair continued to be fashionable throughout the Middle Ages. Women also used heated curling rods, copying Roman fashions. They would also braid their damp hair with scraps of fabric to achieve waves in their hair. Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries also used hot rollers, scraps of fabric with damp hair, and early curling irons to keep their hair looking fashionably coiffed.

Frenchman Marcel Grateau is acknowledged as the official inventor of the curling tong. In 1872, Grateau revolutionized hair styling when he invented the “Marcel Wave” as alternative hairstyle to the long curls that were in trend at the time. The curling tong he invented, and used to create the “Marcel Wave,” still closely resembled the curling irons used by ancient civilizations. Over time, only the handles of curling tongs and the size of the metal barrel varied from one tool to another; handles would often be made of different types of wood, or more expensive models would have nickel-plated handles and oral embellishments. The curling tongs were designed to be heated over a gas burner. Now, this is incredibly dangerous for a multitude of reasons. You have open flames, a really hot piece of metal, and people not wearing heat protective gloves. There was also a very real risk of heating the tool up too much and burning your hair off, which happened, a lot! Women would try to take some protective measures, by wrapping the hair they were curling in paper first, but that didn’t prevent burning if the iron was too hot.

Thankfully today, we have electric curling irons, and most of them have temperature gauges. According to Redkin’s website, your curling iron should not exceed a temperature of 200 degrees, otherwise you might burn your hair. Our curling iron is in good condition, but none of us at the museum will be using it anytime soon. It is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of women in the late Victorian period, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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