When I was about 12, a friend of mine curled her hair using rags. She was a fan of Anne of Green Gables and wanted to see what it looked like. It was cute, but rags are similar to curlers worn overnight. They may produce waves or add volume to straight hair, but they definitely don’t produce the perfect little tight curls one often sees in portraits from the Regency era or in period films—at least not on her.
The first curling iron was patented in 1866, but the device, or its precursors were around long before that. The precursors to the curling iron were knows as curling rods or curling tongs depending on their design. Tongs operate in the same way that modern curling irons work. They contain a clasp and the tip of the hair is help in place while the shaft of hair is rolled. Curling rods, on the other hand, were held up and the hair was wrapped around the rod starting at the base of the hair.
Artifacts from Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Egyptian cultures all include tools of this nature. They were often made of iron or bronze, and just like the first patented design, the curling end of these devices were heated directly by flame. This method of heating makes the temperature of the metal difficult to predict. Hair styled using these tools often became singed and damaged. In extreme cases, the hair could catch fire. Needly to say, it took a certain level of skill to operate these things correctly. Originally, curling was reserved for the wealthy, but this changed over time.
Electricity was introduced to the curling iron in 1959. In the 1980s, a spring was added to the design which ensures that the heat was more evenly distributed. Today, modern curling irons can be made of all sorts of materials, including ceramic. You can still damage your hair using a curling iron, but your chances of success are far greater than it would be if you used one of the ones Jane Austen had access to.