How did they get those perfect curls? Very carefully.

How did they get those perfect curls? Very carefully.

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.



13 Responses to How did they get those perfect curls? Very carefully.

  1. One of the good things (????) about having been sick is that my hair is now really short and I don’t feel the need to try to get it to curl, which seems to go against every dictate of nature. I could spend hours with hot rollers and a curling iron and it would look great. For about 5 minutes. Sigh.
    Perhaps I should have used a sugar solution to help set the curls too. LOL
    I can’t imagine having to go through that with tongs that had just come out of the fire. I’m just a little bit clumsy with things like that and I’d probably have burned off an ear!

    • Me too on the clumsy thing. I tried curling my hair as a child and burned my forehead. My hair holds a curl very well, but it can take awhile to do with curlers. For my sister’s wedding, they washed it and put it in curlers. I must have sat under that hair dryer for 2 hours and they kept geeking on me to find long wet locks. Finally they had to blow dry it and use the iron. Wrapped up, my hair refuses to dry. I hope you have a warm hat. I’ve heard that one of the unexpected consequences of losing your hair is that your scalp can get very cold. A nice soft hat would be perfect for winter, especially if you live somewhere snowy.

      • I really learned how much hair keeps your head warm! I don’t know how many hats I crocheted that year. LOL Living in a cold climate, we have SO many hats. Winter hats, knit hats, faux-fur hats, woolen caps, caps with earflaps, between-season hats, sun hats, dressing-up hats…
        SO MANY HATS!

  2. In the movie ‘Little Women’ one of the sisters wasn’t careful and actually burned off a section of hair. In the movie ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ one of the male characters was standing in front of the mirror talking to his butler/valet saying he would need the curling tongs for the next day. Funny how I remember that. Oh, the things we do for beauty. Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Two of my favorite films. Thank you for reminding me. i(although I will need to rewatch The Importance of Being Earnest. I can’t recall that screen. My husband actually mouths the lines along with the actors for that one. Oscar Wilde is so funny.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Cinnamon. As someone who has dead straight hair which takes about half an hour to curl with my ceramic straighteners, funnily enough, I find it fascinating how curling hair has been done in the past.

  4. Interesting post, Cinnamon. Definitely those irons would be utilized carefully. Especially when ones ear could get singed or, as you mentioned, one’s hair could catch on fire. Looking beautiful could get a little dangerous. 🙂

  5. I am not a curling iron girl but it does seem ours today are easier then the ones from those days!lol

    • I agree. Ours do seem easier. Although, I’m still inept at using one. They seem to require some type of coordination. I barely mastered walking. Sigh.

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