Imagine, you are a woman living in the 1920's. Tonight, you are going to a party and it is important that you look your best! You have already chosen your dress, and make-up will be done later in the day, but now it is time to start your hair styling. Like many of the women around you, you will want to appear with tight waves in your hair, but your hair is naturally straight and limp. Luckily, you own a crimping iron so you can style your hair appropriately, but it is a long and sometimes dangerous task!
When I took this crimping iron to show the children, I asked them to guess what it was. Although one child examined it closely enough to notice the name 'curlina' inscribed on the metal and guessed correctly, most were surprised when I revealed what the crimping iron actually was. Some thought it looked like something which you could use in the laundry, suggesting it could be used to put in pleats or lift clothing out of hot water. Other children thought it belonged in the kitchen, though they couldn't quite work out exactly what it would do. Others still thought it must be some sort of weapon or torture device (which was possibly the closest guess!) The idea that various hair irons have existed for many years was completely unexpected, as was the idea that even past generations might have spent so much time and effort on creating a certain hair style.
At every period in recorded history, hair styling has been an important part of fashion. Occasionally, hair was styled in a way that was functional and most hairstyles did keep hair out of the face and eyes. For the ancient Egyptians, both men and women had short hair because of the heat of the desert. You may be thinking that this sounds very odd because most pictures of Egyptians show long, elaborately curled hair styles, but these were actually wigs worn for ceremonial occasions. More often than not hair, particularly women's hair, has been styled ornately and frequently the more elaborately styled the higher the status of the person. The most elaborate hairstyles belong to the 18th century, when powdered hair and powdered wigs were popular. At that time, the bigger the hair the better and many people even used wire cages or pads made of horse hair to add height to the hair style. Sometimes objects were even worked into the hair - everything from a miniature boat in a sea of hair to a birdcage with real birds inside! Unfortunately for the 18th century people, the time it took to create such elaborate hair styles meant that they weren't redone very often and they were the perfect place for vermin to build their nests. If you would like to learn more about hair styles click here.
The crimping iron which I showed the children probably came from the 1920's or 1930's, though hair irons have actually existed for almost as long as hair has been styled. In fact the Egyptians had curling irons which they heated up and used to style their wigs. You can see an example of one by clicking here. Most hair irons, whether they are being used to curl, straighten or make waves in hair, work by using heat, just like a clothes iron. Before electric hair irons, like the ones people use today were invented, hair irons were heated in the fire or sometimes (from the 1800's on) using a special heating machine (you can see one here). The danger of course was that the iron was too hot and burned the hair, the person using it or both. The crimping iron which I showed the children has insulated handles, but earlier pairs were solid metal and the whole iron would have been heated, making it dangerous to use. People probably would have had to wrap paper or material around the handle of these earlier models. Luckily, today hair irons are much safer to use!