Iron Ages: An Uncommon History of the Curling Iron
Iron Age Hair
Have you ever ironed your hair or enjoyed a 1960s or 1970s film in which female teens were ironing their hair straight? It was not so new even then, because women had been straightening their hair with flat irons since before the Civil War.
With a clothing flat iron, hair could be wound around something solid but flat several times and pressed with the iron that was heated on the wood stove. Today's flat irons are similar to cylindrical electric curling irons, but with flat surfaces.
My paternal grandmother and my grandfather's second wife both had flat irons in their farm houses just after the Civil War, but no time to iron theirs or their daughters' hair. They washed and dried their hair, pinned it up and sometimes braided it for variety or rolled it up on strips of cloth that they'd tie into knots near the scalp. When you work from before sunrise and all the way past sunset 6 or 7 days a week, your hair is not an A-List item.
My grandfather's third wife had one of the early curling irons in the 20th century in the 1920s, which was a decade full of household and beauty inventions and patents. Permanent wave machines were used in beauty salons as well, connecting metal curlers to the hair and using electricity to heat them.
Hair crimpers were popular in the 1920s as well, giving the hair the corrugated look, and they were not first invented in the 1960s or 70s some ads of the day claimed. Also in use were flat irons and curling irons.
I think that the first curling irons were just that, rods of iron stuck into a fire over 6,000 years ago by our friends the Africans (especially Egyptians), the Greeks, and possibly residents of the Far East. This invention was probably made at the same time in India, Pakistan, and other ancient locales.
When we look at the artwork of the Pharoahs' Age, we see some long curled and waved hairstyles. I suspect that a number of items were used to shape, set, and style the hair of men and women, even children. A few objects which may have been used for hair have been on display in the Ohio Historical Society from visiting exhibits through recent decades and at the local Center of Science and Industry.
These exhibits include short iron rods and darts, decorative bones, ivory, stone objects and others. My idea is that after iron production was discovered/invented, someone found that a hot iron dart wrapped in hair either burned it off or crimped and curled it. It would similarly treat a wig of hair. Flat irons later could straighten it.
The Egyptians also used hairbands, hair clasps, and hair pins. East Asian women of some cultures sometimes used iron darts to 1) hold hair in place and 2) serve as a handy weapon.
Curling Irons Of Ancient Egypt
Searching for archaeological databases this day, I found a listing of two curling irons made of bronze that are Bronze Age artifacts rather than rfom the Iron Age. They come from Ancient Egypt and are owned by the University of Chicago at The Oriental Institute. http://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/virtual/eg/e_objects.html Retrieved February 23, 2011.
- OIM 18176: Curling Iron - Bronze - 72mml Bronze Curling Iron, 1 Handle In The Form Of A Horse, Hind Legs Stretched Rearward Blending Into A Band Of Papyrus Sepals Ending By The Rounded Cutting Edge
- OIM 9912: Curling Iron & Knife - New Kingdom - Bronze - 88x13 mm 2 Pieces, Fastened By Rivet
Watch a movie of the Daily Life exhibit containing the curling irons.
- Virtual Tour of the Oriental Institute Museum | The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
Welcome to the Oriental Institute Museum’s 360° interactive virtual tour! This tour was completed 2014 by Virtually Anywhere, a virtual tour production company, in collaboration with the Oriental Institute Museum’s Curatorial Assistant Mónica G. Véle
Additional hairstyles sometimes used flat irons:
US Patents for Curling Irons
The US Patent Office maintains patent records from 1790 near the end of the American Revolution, to the present, including text and images. There seem to be a lot of curling irons and related apparatuses.
The earliest patent for a curling iron appears around the the American Civil War era, in 1866, with many more patents appearing from 1921 forward. However, inventions and patents for curling irons were numerous in Europe as well.
France had at least one curling iron patent by 1870. This all coordinates with the timeline of farm life for my great grandmother, grandmother, and Grandmother's successors - my grandfather's second and third wives, all of whom used flat iron hair devices.
After the American Civil War, in 1866, a Mr. Hiram Maxim was a US-born citizen of England who gained hundreds of patents. He invented a curling iron, the Maxim machine gun, a light bulb, an asthma inhaler, and the mousetrap. He obtained 122 US Patents and many more in the England.
Thus, Maxim covered military, household, health, and beauty industry sectors. A photo of one of his guns appears below.
© 2011 Patty Inglish MS