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Wonderful Things: ancient egyptian curling tongs

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects.

For pretty much as long as people have had hair they have looked for ways to change it. Inventions such as curling tongs feel relatively modern but they have actually been around for centuries.

We only have to look at paintings and carvings from the ancient world to see that having curls was a fashion that crossed many cultures. Babylonian and Assyrian men dyed their hair and square beards black, then crimped and curled them with basic curling irons. Persian and Greek nobles also used rods of iron or bronze heated over a fire to produce impressive hairstyles which would highlight their wealth and beauty. Egyptian nobles often cropped their hair close or shaved their heads but on ceremonial occasions, for protection from the sun, they wore wigs. The wigs would be long and full of curls or braids, which were styled with tools like this one.

Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE
Bronze hair curling tongs and trimmer, Egypt, 1575-1194 BCE
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

These bronze curling tongs are combined with a hair trimmer and would have been heated up on a fire before pieces of hair were curled around them.

In the 1890s tonging became very popular as hair was elaborately styled on top of the head often with loose curls or ringlets around the face. Books and articles with instructions were written about the arrangement of hair to emphasise a woman’s beauty, and upper class women were expected to follow these guidelines.

The fashion wasn’t just for the very wealthy anymore though as the emerging middle classes tried to emulate the style. Curling tongs still resembled those from Ancient Egypt, and many accidents resulting in burnt or damaged hair occurred as the heat of the metal tongs was difficult to control.

Illustrations from 'Fashionable Hair Dressing' an article in The Delineator, 1894
Illustrations from ‘Fashionable Hair Dressing’ an article in The Delineator, 1894.

With the advent of electricity curling tongs started to resemble those we use today. Curling tongs were invented which could be plugged into a light socket which meant more temperature control and less scorched hair! By the mid-twentieth century there were many varying designs, so much so that the definitive inventor of the modern curling iron is much disputed. They now come in many sizes and styles depending on the type of curls you desire from tight ringlets to loose waves or even crimped styles. Everyone now has the freedom to express themselves by styling their hair in an infinite variety of ways and as technology develops who knows what new tools may be invented.

What hairstyles do you think will be in fashion in 50 years time?

This object is currently on display in the Science and Art of Medicine gallery. There are also other examples of some 19th Century curling tongs in the Secret Life of the Home gallery.