Collectors Get Fired Up About Hair Irons

No matter how commonplace the item, somebody somewhere just loves it. There are antique collectors for just about anything, even old curling irons.

Though seemingly simple gadgets, curling irons have changed greatly over the past 100 years or so.

Iron tongs were used by barbers centuries ago to curl the hair of their wealthy – sometimes royal – clients. Think of Marie Antoinette hairstyles and even the men’s wigs of the same era – barbers had to curl a lot of hair, and iron tongs heated in a fireplace or the hot coals of small stoves were used for creating those tight spirals.

During the 19th century, curled and wavy hair was still in vogue, and convenient devices for heating curling irons became a necessity for both ladies at home and for professional hair stylists.

Imagine the ordeal of heating these iron rods before the convenience of electricity! Even small gas heating stoves were used.

“Fuel for supplying heat in the different types of little stoves included kerosene, gas, alcohol and sterno,” according to Elizabeth Pullar, who wrote about curling irons in the Antique Trader publication.

One of the curling irons shown in today’s column is an antique gas unit that was designed to look like a turtle holding the small stove. Attached to one end of the stove is a simple brace to hold the curling iron itself, and at the other end is the gas valve that regulated the amount of fuel that flowed into the incoming pipe. This decorative iron probably dates to the last part of the 19th century. Early fuel-based curling irons include folding model stoves and other clever designs. All are collectibles that detail social customs and fashion.

Curling your hair with early irons heated over direct flames required careful use. Testing the iron first with a piece of paper before putting it on the actual hair was essential to avoid the awful look (and smell) of frizzled hair.

Apparently one of the simplest curling irons designed early on was one that could be placed on top a common kerosene lamp. This folding iron was set on top of the glass chimney of the lamp, allowing it to heat up. Using a folding iron meant that the wooden handle could remain outside the heating area, preventing the common burns that resulted from these methods.

A wide variety of designs followed these earliest models once electricity came into play in the early 20th century.

Electric curling irons included crimpers and wavers, combs and curling attachments. Early electric heating elements were large and cumbersome but often ornamental. Some have multiple holes for different size irons and for beauty shop and professional use.

Collectors of curling irons also enjoy the antique ads and artwork that described these “modern” machines. Other curling iron enthusiasts include other hair items in their collections, such as fancy hair combs and ladies’ dresser sets.

Victorian style dresser sets were usually heavy repousse, silver-backed brushes, combs, mirrors, pincushions and hair receivers. Even curling irons were sometimes made in silver. The silver versions can be ornate and are very valuable today.

The more fragile celluloid dresser sets were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s and included manicure tools, pillboxes and buttonhooks, along with combs, brushes and hand mirrors.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen@hotmail .com or by writing in care of this newspaper.