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Iron Ages: An Uncommon History of the Curling Iron

Ms. Inglish has spent 30 years working in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Flat Iron on an Antique Stove.

Flat Iron on an Antique Stove.

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.

Ancient Egyptian hair and fashion.

Ancient Egyptian hair and fashion.

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.

Additional hairstyles sometimes used flat irons:

Ancient Greek hair styling also used flat irons.

Ancient Greek hair styling also 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.

A 1934 permanent waving machine. It used heat, like a multiple curling iron.

A 1934 permanent waving machine. It used heat, like a multiple curling iron.

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.

A popular Mid-20th century curling iron.

A popular Mid-20th century curling iron.

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.

A Maxim Gun.

A Maxim Gun.

© 2011 Patty Inglish MS

Comments and Memories

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on August 27, 2012:

I used to have a misting curling iron that had a water reservoir and a button to push to mist one's hair while curling - haven;t seen one in quite some time, but it was great! Think was a danger the oldest curling irons were, being in the fire and all. I wonder how many were burned with them?

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on August 27, 2012:

Very interesting read! I never thought about the "iron age" in terms of the "curling iron." This hub made me smile. Thank you for compiling this information.

Haydee Anderson from Hermosa Beach on March 18, 2012:

Loved the read! History is fascinating.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 13, 2012:

I have seen one of those in out local historical museum and at the Henry Ford in Dearborn Michigan. I think you can curl or straighten with it, either one.

Marysangelbaby on February 13, 2012:

Can anyone tell me about a bronze hair comb with a coiled iron handle. I believe it was used to curl or straighten hair. I can forward a picture if you would like.

Thank you,

Mary

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 26, 2012:

I know my grandmothers must have done. I burned my hand the first time I used an electric iron.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 26, 2012:

I can hear the scary sizzle and steam right now! Too many cords for me, I think. You have some really interesting information and memories, Rochelle.

mikeydcarroll67 on January 26, 2012:

Interesting hub. I wonder how many women burned themselves over the years with a flat iron.....makes you shudder to think about that.....

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on January 25, 2012:

There is a stove like the one at the top, with the multiple flatiorns, in the museum near me. It was a charcoal burner, and I heard that the one on display was used in a Chinese laundry in California gold country.

The electric permanent wave machine with all of the dangly cords brings back scary memories for me. I was subjected to that a few times. I remember you could hear it sizzle and steam as it worked its 'magic'. The worst part was that you couldn't really turn your head when all of the cords were attached.

Nice article, as always.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 19, 2012:

I remember pin curls, too. They did work well. Did you get a permanent (wave) every summer before school started? I did for years and my hair looked and felt like a scouring pad. Broke lots of brushes and combs.

Natasha from Hawaii on January 19, 2012:

When I was a kid, my mom would sometimes put my hair in rag curls or pin curls. They are sort of uncomfortable to sleep in, but work pretty well and are not damaging the way heated hair appliances are.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 19, 2012:

Sorry to hear that. Beauty products can cause damage.

Nina L James from chicago, Illinois on January 19, 2012:

I have a bump on my ear as a reminder of my pain.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 19, 2012:

Sounds horrid! I hope you were not scarred.

Nina L James from chicago, Illinois on January 19, 2012:

Hello Patty Inglish, MS, Your hub is pretty interesting. I never thought about the history of the curling iron. As a little girl, I remember my mom straightening & curling my hair for various occasions. But I had an unfortunate accident when my oldest sister made an attempt to curl the sides of my hair and she curled my ear instead!!! You cannot imagine the pain I was in. I'm still somewhat afraid to let anyone come near my head with any type of heated hair instruments. Your hub is great!!!!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 17, 2012:

I'll be going to the museum tomorrow, so I'll look there as well. Thanks for commenting!

Pam on January 16, 2012:

Great article. I was looking for info on when the first electric curling iron was available because the women in the BBC series Downton Abbey were using one - I could see a cord coming out of it and it made me wonder--- an electric curling iron that plugged in --- in 1916? But as the characters even commented upon it I'm sure someone must have researched it. But information on that is hard to come by it seems. I had heard that women used to heat irons on stoves to straighten or curl hair. I imagine as long as women have had hair they've been trying to change it! Funny you mention the Ohio Historical Society and COSI - I live in Columbus and have access to both! I'll have to check it out.

Davina on November 18, 2011:

i love curling irons they save my life especially when i want it straight and just got done washing it

mary-lambert from Charlotte, NC on October 10, 2011:

Nice look back. Wonder how many burned foreheads got burned back then.

Ikeji Chinweuba from Nigeria on October 03, 2011:

I really love this article, very interesting and informative!

Kenners on October 02, 2011:

Okay so my hair ALWAYS looks like it exploded. (Kinda like if you stuck a fork in a high voltage power outlet) and i CANT fix it!!! Ive tried literaly EVERYTHING! including gels, moose, hairspray, and especially flat irons. Anyone have any tips on "repairing" my hair? Oh and no i dont hav split rnds according to my salon-ist

Iintertrans from New Delhi on September 24, 2011:

There is lot of ways for managing your hairs , You had added a real new dimension into it.

this is really good and nice to know

I will vote this as useful one.

Mishael Austin Witty from Kentucky, USA on September 04, 2011:

Really enjoyed this. So interesting!

Psycho Gamer from Earth on May 20, 2011:

a really great hub....people u would be amazed how many things we THINK we have invented those ANCIENT people used before us......

htodd from United States on May 01, 2011:

Nice hub,Thanks

Emma from Houston TX on March 11, 2011:

Very informative hub that is well packaged with excellent pics that really fit in.

speedbird from Nairobi, Kenya on March 10, 2011:

Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the history of curling iron, Very informative hub indeed. Voted UP and rated USEFUL

Dana Rock from Pacific Northwest on March 07, 2011:

My spouse bought an old school flat iron for a really good deal thinking that it plugged in. It was very funny ;)

Ann Leavitt from Oregon on March 07, 2011:

Brilliant content, and a fascinating read! I wonder how many women singed their hair with flat clothes irons turned up too hot or held on too long. Ouch!

ladyt11 on March 02, 2011:

nice, very interesting!

susannah42 from Florida on February 27, 2011:

Amazing. I did not know any of this history.

Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on February 25, 2011:

What a cool hub, love it...ancient times, wow we haven't came as far as I thought, we just have re-created old ideas into new ideas. I really enjoyed this hub Patty, thanks so much. rate up love & peace darski

Hello, hello, from London, UK on February 25, 2011:

A very, very interesting article. Thank you for your wonderful work.

chspublish from Ireland on February 24, 2011:

I do like the present day version of hair staighteners. Very helpful for out of control hair. Thanks.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 24, 2011:

Isn't that amazing? - so clever of Laura.

Rose - Plain old heavy irons for my grandmother-- I would have burnt my hair off. Egypt was well advanced in hair and wigs, I see from museums.

Ivorwen from Hither and Yonder on February 24, 2011:

In the Little House books, Laura talks about curling her bangs with her lead pencil, after warming it on the wood stove. I always thought that was so clever.

Rose West from Michigan on February 24, 2011:

Loved this hub! The history is really fascinating! I didn't realize that hair ironing tools were used so long ago.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 24, 2011:

Bronson_Hub - Nice of you to read and appreciate the Hub. I gave up on all the electric hair tools, because my hair always went back to 'too curly.' Not as bad as when I was in elementary school. Every August my mother put a home permanent in my coarse curly hair and no brush or comb could ever get into it until Christmas - it was like a coiled dish scrubber. Thankfully, my hair is thinning a bit now.

Fay - I wish my mother had used an iron instead of those permanents! In HS, I finally was able to grow it longer and the weight pulled the curl out a bit.

Fay Paxton on February 24, 2011:

Patty, for African Americans hair straightening and curling was n entirely different experience, even though the end result was he same. My roommate in college was always ironing her hair with my clothing iron. We couldn't afford anything else. :)

up and useful

Bronson_Hub from San Francisco, CA on February 24, 2011:

First! Sorry, that was my inner teenager saying "first". He gets out from time to time. Before this masterfully written article on what seems mundane at first glance, I glared at curling irons left in the bathroom sink that belonged to girlfriends of days passed. With that bright orange light on waiting, it stopped me to think twice before grabbing my toothbrush. "Someday, those things will electrocute us all." I complained in that tone regularly. Your article enlightened me! Now, simply moving the curling iron from the sink to some other non-flammable area in the bathroom will no longer daunt me knowing the trouble you had to go through in days past to straighten out those curls. Well done, Miss Ingrish!