Wig curlers and hair tongs

Britain, early 1700s and late 1800s

[Top:] Donated by Alice Marcon in 1956; 1956.3.39.1–.3[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Donated by W.F. Pratley in 1952; 1952.7.15[Top:] Donated by Alice Marcon in 1956; 1956.3.39.1–.3
Bottom: Donated by W.F. Pratley in 1952; 1952.7.15
The fashion for curling hair dates back centuries. During the Julio-Claudian era (27 BC–AD 68), it was fashionable among men and women to sport tight curls. Women's hair was usually tethered in an up-style although paintings and sculptures of Roman women with curls tumbling onto their shoulders are an imitation of Venus, attempting to evoke the goddess and the qualities associated with her: beauty, sexuality and fertility.

Heat is the greatest aid to helping hair set in a curl. Pipe-clay curlers like these were made from the 17th–19th centuries and would be heated in an oven before use. Cane, boxwood and willow versions were produced from the late 18th century and had the advantage that they did not get so hot. To make permanent curls for wigs, the hair was wound around a clay curler steeped in boiling water and then heated. It was not unknown to take hair to the bakery where it was wrapped in brown paper inside a protective pastry crust and placed in the oven.

No one knows who invented hair tongs. The Romans themselves were thought to have used a form of tongs, known as calamistrum, and examples have been found at Pompeii. Tongs shaped rather like scissors with rounded prongs used in the 16th century remained little changed in the 19th centuries. Hiram Maxim, the prolific inventor responsible for the world's first fully automatic machine-gun and the ubiquitous mousetrap, obtained a patent for a hair-curling iron in 1866 aged 26. As early as 1765, a new design was also in use that featured only one moving prong, which was smaller and fitted in to a groove on the other. Later designs had sprung handles and still form the basis of modern curling tong appliances.

Victorian tongs like these ones from Oxford had wooden, ivory, or even silver handles. They would have been warmed in a metal compartment heated on the stove or a spirit burner. With the advent of electricity, tongs that plugged in to wall sockets appeared first on the market in the USA in the early 20th century. The French hairdresser Marcel Grateau caused a sensation in 1872 when he used tongs to create waves instead of curls. He marketed special wave tongs with looser grooves and larger diameters and so many women flocked to his salon that he was able to retire aged just 45.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England