During much of the 1860s and 1870s, hair arranged in artfully placed curls and ringlets was all the rage. But for ladies with naturally straight hair, those curls weren’t always easy to achieve. Who can forget the scene in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when Jo burns off her sister Meg’s hair with a pair of hot tongs?
Meg wanted a few curls about her face, and Jo undertook to pinch the papered locks with a pair of hot tongs.
“Ought they to smoke like that?” asked Beth from her perch on the bed.
“It’s the dampness drying,” replied Jo.
“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.
Alcott’s description was no dramatic exaggeration. Hot tongs were heated directly in the fire, making the temperature difficult to control. As a result, when used carelessly, or incorrectly, they could not only scorch a lady’s hair, they could also blister her fingers and burn the delicate skin of her face and ears.
Nevertheless, ladies continued to use hot tongs and crimping irons throughout the nineteenth century. According to Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet (1881), the safest method for using curling tongs was to wrap slightly dampened hair around a pair of hot tongs that had been wrapped in “thin brown paper.” Alternatively, paper could be wrapped directly around the hair before application of the tongs—as Jo wrapped Meg’s hair.
A paper barrier was meant to help protect the hair from being scorched. However, it was no protection against a pair of hot tongs that had been applied too long, or to hair that was fine and brittle.
An 1859 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book warned ladies not to use hot tongs at all, calling them “destructive agents to the nourishing property of the hair.” Instead, Godey’s advised its readers to employ a gum solution, such as one made from gum Senegal. This was applied to the hair before curling it in papers or pins, rather like a modern-day setting lotion. As Godey’s states:
“The least harmless [sic] mode of curling hair is to moisten it with a solution of gum Senegal in water, turning it round paper squibs, and after letting it so remain for a few hours, dressing the hair as usual, by which means it is kept in a perfectly natural condition.”
Gum solutions like those made with gum Senegal were not overly difficult to make at home. In his 1876 publication Archdeacon’s Kitchen Cabinet, William Archdeacon provides a recipe for “Hair-Curling Liquid for Ladies” which contains gum Senegal, borax, wine, and camphor.
For those who didn’t have the time or skill to fuss with hot tongs or gum solutions, there was always false hair. Ladies could purchase a variety of hair pieces—from clusters of false curls to pin at their temples to frizettes to wear at their foreheads.
Curls have never truly gone out of style, nor have the methods by which we procure them. Hot irons and setting solutions are still around today. Which hasn’t made the former a great deal safer. After all, who among us can’t relate to that scene in Little Women?
*Author’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about Victorian hair care and hairstyles, please see these articles from my archives:
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1868.
Archdeacon, William. Archdeacon’s Kitchen Cabinet. Chicago: W. Archdeacon, 1876.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vols. 58-59. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1859.
Matthews, Mimi. A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2018.
Sylvia’s Book of the Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide to Dress and Beauty. London: Ward, Lock, and Co., 1881.