The Girl with the 19th Century Curl: Hot Tongs, Setting Lotions, and False Hair

Il Bazar, 1869.
(Met Museum)

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.

Ivins’ Patent Hair Crimper, 1865.
(Godey’s Lady’s Book)

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.

A Hairdresser Burns a Woman’s Locks with Curling Tongs, 19th century.
(Wellcome Library)

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.

Archdeacon’s Kitchen Cabinet, 1876.

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.

False Hair and Accessories, 1873.
(Godey’s Lady’s Book)

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:

Rolled Coiffures of the 1860s, featuring Rats, Cats, and Mice for the Hair

A Fashionable Coiffure: Rolls, Plaits, and other Popular Hairstyles of 1863

A Simple Coiffure: Basic Hairstyles for Victorian Women of Moderate Means

Gold and Silver Hair Powders for Fashionable Victorian Coiffures

Victorian Hairspray: A Brief History of Gum Solutions and Bandoline

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Work of Art, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.


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.

© 2015-2020 Mimi Matthews

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10 months ago

Oh my, don’t we all have ‘hair-raising’ stories to tell about our hair issues! Dippity Do was my best friend… Thank you Mimi!

Carole in Canada
Carole in Canada
10 months ago

Nothing has changed really. Those who have curly hair want straight and those who straight want curly! Mine is straight as a pin and the curling iron use to be my friend.

10 months ago

My mother curled my hair in the 1950s –over my objections — with tongs that she heated on our gas stove. I would be sent to the bathroom to bring a few sheets of toilet paper to the kitchen; she tested the heat of the tongs on the paper, and if they did not burn the paper, they were ready to be used on my hair. “You have to suffer to be beautiful” was one of her favorite expressions….

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