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Object of the Week

Victorian beauty aids or torture implements? Maybe a little of both! Find out more here.

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Curling tongs and glove stretchers

Did you go rushing to the hairdressers to get your lockdown mop chopped? Or are you still struggling on at home with the scissors and a wish and a prayer? For today’s Object of the Week we’re looking at Victorian hairdressing – or, as they look to me, implements of torture!

You can see on the dressing table of the lady’s bedroom that she has a couple of implements for styling her hair. Like me, she might have found lockdown hair easier than some, as her hair would, like mine, have been long. But you still have to style it, and it looks like the lady of the house wanted curly hair, as there are two pairs of curling tongs on the dressing table.

One is a very ordinary pair of curling tongs. How they worked was simple – you heated the long blades up in the fire or using a heater powered by a kerosene lamp, and applied curl papers to your hair to stop it scorching. We saw how this could be dangerous with ironing – how much more with your hair? There’s a telling scene in Louisa M. Allcott’s Little Women where Jo is curling Meg’s hair:

“What a queer smell! It’s like burned feathers,” observed Amy, smoothing her own pretty curls with a superior air.

“There, now I’ll take off the papers and you’ll see a cloud of little ringlets,” said Jo, putting down the tongs.

She did take off the papers, but no cloud of ringlets appeared, for the hair came with the papers, and the horrified hairdresser laid a row of little scorched bundles on the bureau before her victim.

This apparently could often happen! I remember once a classmate of mine burning her hair on a Bunsen burner – and seeing her curls crumble was horrifying! However, curling tongs remained popular – and are still popular to this day. Of course, ours are now powered by electricity, but it’s still possible to burn your hair.

The other metal implement is also for curling hair, but to create a different effect to the ringlets the curling tongs would have made. They are waving irons, to produce a softer look of crimped, wavy hair – particularly fashionable in the Edwardian era. I confess that I think I’d rather not use either of these, but if I needed to curl my hair I’d be using the paper curlers or rags also used in the Victorian period – possibly painful when on, as they were often pulled tight to get a tighter curl, but not likely to burn you!

What is the white item, then? Possibly also useful for lockdown, they are glove stretchers, to stretch the fingers of soft leather gloves, so ensuring you didn’t damage them as you put them on. They were made of wood or, as in this case, bone, and are hinged in the middle so that you could insert them into the finger and very gently open it. Anyone struggling to get a nitrile glove over a damp hand might well think they need bringing back!