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Curling Irons As Collectibles?

Though a seemingly simple gadget, curling irons have changed greatly over the past 100 years or so. For antique enthusiasts, these beauty tools represent social history, Americana and the changing times, so — guess what? — they are collectible!

The design is varied and offers a wide range of examples. What would you do with this type of collection? You could display them in a bathroom or vanity setting, but for the most part, collectors simply enjoy the story.

Sometimes referred to as tongs, iron versions 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 heads. 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. Apparently 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 an old Antique Trader annual.

One of the curling irons 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. Other early fuel-based curling irons include folding model stoves and other clever designs.

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 overtop the glass chimney of the lamp, for heating. Using a folding iron meant that the wooden handle could remain outside the heating area.

Curling irons proved to be very popular throughout the past 200-plus years, and designs that followed these earliest models include a wide variety 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 use. If you have an antique curling iron with the original packaging, so much the better.

Collectors of curling irons often 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.

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.

I learned an interesting fact on ethnic hair, too, while researching this column. I t seems that Madam C.J. Walker was a pioneer in straightening hair and popularized a hot comb system that helped to make her a self-made millionaire in the early 1900s, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the PBS website. This hardworking black entrepreneur was the daughter of former slaves, and her story explains just how important Americana antiques are to history. It’s perfect fact for antique enthusiasts and for the upcoming Black History Month.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures that you are interested in seeing featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at   zambitomaureen@hotmail. com


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