Artifact of the Month: February 2020

Christeah Dupont, Point Ellice House Museum & Gardens

Styles may come and go, but curling irons have been used to style hair for several millennia. From the small bronze curlers of Ancient Egypt to the modern electric iron, little has changed with curling technology in the centuries since the first strands of hair were wrapped around a hot piece of metal for the sake of style and status.

For our February artifact of the month we chose a pair of curling tongs and a pair of crimping tongs. Although we do not know exactly when or where these objects were manufactured, both pairs show significant signs of wear and discolouration from a small gas burner used to heat the tongs. Curling tongs are not dissimilar to the modern curling iron in that they are a rounded piece of metal that is heated before wrapping hair  around it (and sometimes pieces of paper to protect the hair) to create a desired curl. The crimping tongs are sterling silver and triple pronged to create a wave effect on panels of hair. This particular pair is ornately decorated in comparison to other crimping and curling tongs in the Point Ellice House collection.

The Victorians (the period from the 1840s to early 1900s) enjoyed a series of hairstyles that required ownership of either a pair of crimping tongs or curling irons; Victorian women such as Caroline and Kathleen O’Reilly were expected to be experts at styling, crimping, curling, coiling, braiding, and generally getting their hair up and out of their way.

Girls and young women who had not yet reached a marriageable age wore their hair down in the Victorian period. Later in life, having hair piled into delicate coils on one’s head was not only convenient but also symbolic of maturity. If women had the time or the paid help to create a more elaborate style, hair could also be a symbol of wealth and social status. However, women unable to afford a pair of fine curling tongs were not without access to styling resources. “Rag curls” were created by cutting up strips of cloth and curling slightly damp hair around the rag. They were tied tightly to the head and allowed to set overnight, resulting in a similar effect to the use of curling tongs.

The O’Reilly family, particularly Kathleen, lived through a number of very interesting hairstyle fads and there were a number of different styling techniques for each updo. Hair could be pinned up into simple buns with curled hair, framing an ideal oval face, or the styles could be elaborate, accentuated with small braids, ribbons, bonnets, and crimped panels of hair.

In the 1870s, a style known as “Marcelling” became popular; the hair was evenly crimped creating a rippling wave throughout the length of hair.  This technique was often incorporated into Victorian hairstyles, though it was always accompanied with braids or coils. The technique underwent a revival in the 1920s and became a part of that decade’s signature fashion.

Through the 1890s, curling hair became (temporarily) out of fashion as the Gibson Girl aesthetic rose in popularity. The “Gibson Girl” personified the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness portrayed by the pen and ink illustrations of artist Charles Dana Gibson. These illustrations depicted women with a tight waist and hair swept up into a soft bun. This Gibson Girl style ran counter to the more traditional and modest Victorian aesthetic.

For millennia the curling iron has been the tool behind hundreds of different hairstyles, demonstrating that sometimes even the simplest tools are the most effective.


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