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Hair and Beauty in the Nineteenth Century

Posted on July 26, 2023 at 8:11 AM by Kyra Troendle

On my first day as an intern at the Farm House Museum I was taken on a tour of the entire building to allow myself to get familiar with all of the incredible artifacts that are on display. When we reached a bedroom on the second floor, I was asked if I knew what a few wishbone shaped metal objects laying on a dresser were. I immediately was transported back to my flight home from England where I had downloaded the 2019 movie adaptation of Little Women. I could envision this very tool being used on Meg March (played by Emma Watson) and it subsequently burning her hair off while her sister Jo was distracted.

I then tried to imagine using a tool like this on my own hair. Going through the process of heating these tongs directly in a fire made the temperature incredibly difficult to control. During this time period, scorching a women’s hair was not the only hazard, these curling tools could also blister fingers and burn skin around the face and ears. This is certainly a far departure from my Revlon curler which I plug directly into an outlet and often set somewhere near 375 degrees Fahrenheit. However, despite the hazards of these hot tongs, women continued to use these tools throughout the nineteenth century.

One thing that impressed me when researching the ways these hot tools were used was discovering the ingenuity produced while trying to avoid being in a situation like Meg Marsh. Many writers of lady’s books advised their readers to wrap slightly dampened hair around a pair of hot tongs that had been previously wrapped in a thin brown paper. Another way to achieve this protection of the hair was by wrapping the damp hair directly before applying the tongs. This method protected the hair from being scorched or singed but could not protect against a mistake like Jo Marsh’s of leaving the tongs in contact with the hair for too long.

When comparing the design of these hair curling tongs to my current hair curler, I noticed that the design of them has not changed over the past few centuries. Today, I open my curler carefully by applying pressure on the handle and wrap my hair around it before releasing the handle and letting it sit with the heat. The base mechanics of the two seemingly work the same, however the introduction of electricity is most certainly a welcome convenience.


Categories: Interns

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