History of the curling iron. Is there such a thing or is the curling iron just a modern invention? Each generation is the same. We think we have invented something new when perhaps all we have done is to modify “old inventions” by applying modern technology. Let us begin to investigate the history of the curling iron or, as it is also known, the curling tong.
Let us begin with the definition of a curling iron. It is a tool, a cylindrical metal appliance, used to change the structure of the hair by applying heat to a lock of hair that has been curled around it. It is natural to think with a modern mind and assume that the heat is generated by electricity. However, the curling iron goes way back before the introduction of electricity.
We only have to look at carvings from the ancient world to see that people cared about the style of their hair and that a popular style involved creating curls. Babylonian and Assyrian men dyed their hair and square beards black and crimped and curled them with curling irons. Persian nobles also curled their hair and beards, quite often staining them.
Egyptian nobles, men and women, cropped their hair close but later, for coolness and cleanliness in their hot climate, shaved their heads. On ceremonial occasions, for protection from the sun, they wore wigs. The wigs would be short and curly or long and full of curls or braids. The Science Museum has an example of curling tongs used by rich Egyptians to prepare their wigs.
In classical Greece it is known that the upper classes used curling irons.
Through time there have been many methods devised to curl hair and to keep the curl in place. For example, in 1906 Charles L. Nessler, a German hairdresser working in London, applied a borax paste and curled hair with an iron to produce the first permanent waves. This costly process took twelve hours. Eight years later, Eugene Sutter adapted the method by creating a dryer containing twenty heaters to do the job of waving more efficiently. Sutter was followed by Gaston Boudou, who modified Sutter’s dryer and invented an automatic roller. By 1920, Rambaud, a Paris beautician, had perfected a system of curling and drying permed hair for softer, looser curls by using an electric hot-air dryer, an innovation of the period made by the Racine Universal Motor Company of Racine, Wisconsin. A significant breakthrough came in 1945, when French chemist Eugene Schueller of L’Oréal laboratories combined the action of thioglycolic acid with hydrogen peroxide to produce the first cold permanent wave, which was cheaper and faster than the earlier hot processes. To control the amount of curl, varying diameter of rods were used for rolling. Technology to hold hair in place was advanced in 1960 when L’Oréal laboratories introduced a polymer hair spray to serve as an invisible net.
The curling iron has remained a favoured tool in spite of all the chemical inventions. We have moved on from the metal rods heated by insertion into hot coals or heating on gas or electric stoves. With no control of the heat of the iron there must have been many cases of singed hair, not to mention burnt fingers and scalps! Modern day styles demand more control and flexibility of hair style with hair looking loose rather than “glued into place”. Electrically heated and electronically controlled irons and tongs are now available. The barrels come in varying sizes enabling a tight curl or loose falling curl finish. Some have a smooth easy-glide ceramic barrel to create a super smooth finish and you can also purchase drop curl hair tongs with a cone shaped tong to create loose, tumbling waves and tousled curls. The fluctuation in hair styles from curly to straight and back again means manufacturers will continue to dream up new innovations to attract both professional hair stylists and the consumer.
So who “invented” the curling iron? Inevitably you find many references to “invented” and “patented by” or “introduced by”. The original inventor is lost in the mists of time but examples of the previous sentence are:
In1866, Hiram Maxim, who designed the machine gun bearing his name, applied for and obtained the first of many patents at age 26 for a hair-curling iron.
Four years later in 1890 two Frenchmen, Maurice Lentheric and Marcel Grateau, used hot-air drying and heated curling tongs to make deep, long-lasting Marcel waves.
The Straightening comb however, is actually credited as first being invented by the late 19th century French hairdresser, Marcel Grateau, who also, invented the curling iron, the permanent wave and later the Gillette safety razor which became popular in Germany after World War I.
In related developments, Rene Lelievre and Roger Lemoine invented an electric curling iron in 1959.
The pressing/curling iron was patented by Theora Stephens on October 21, 1980.
In August 1987 the Wahl Clipper Corporation introduced to the professional market the ZeeCurl. This flat-barrel curling iron gave stylists a tool to create new hairstyles with Z-shaped curls, adding texture and body to all types of hair. In 1988, FrenZee, the consumer version, was added.
There is little doubt that fashion will demand and dictate new innovations to ensure continuation of the history of the curling iron.