Today we have a curling iron from the 1890s – but not one that looks familiar to modern eyes. This small iron comb, with wooden handle, was designed for use by men and women for hair on the head or of the facial variety. When heated over the fire, it could serve as a curling iron to achieve a number of fashionable styles.
It looks a lot like one of Dr. Scott’s Electric Curlers, seen here advertised in the 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalog:
George A. Scott was a purveyor of “electric” oddities, from hairbrushes to toothbrushes to corsets, all of which were in fact magnetized – but electric sounded much, much cooler. The magnetic qualities were supposed to be a wondrous cure-all, making these hair curlers etc. both useful and, er, ‘useful.’
A closer look at our comb shows a different manufacturer, however. The slightly rusty metal is inscribed “BON TON Pat. May 28 ‘89.” George L. Thompson of Chicago, manufacturer of “curling irons, hardware and notions,” received a patent for his “combined comb and curling iron” on May 28, 1889, and trademarked the name “Bon Ton” in 1890. The patent description (which focuses on the way in which the teeth are made) tells us that the mysterious holes through the middle are for ventilation when the iron is heated, “so that the handle will not be heated or burned from heating the comb and its back.” (Don’t worry, he’d already gotten a patent for that design feature.) There’s no mention of magnetism anywhere in the patent – but then, Dr. Scott seldom mentioned his dubious magnets either, simply patenting the physical design. Our Bon Ton comb is a tad magnetic, but so far I can’t find any hint that Mr. Thompson purposely magnetized his hair curlers a la Dr. Scott.
What would our tiny hair curler be used for? (After all, the teeth are only 3/8 inches long.) As the advertisement for Dr. Scott’s curler proclaims, “by its aid the hair, beard or moustache can be curled any desired style in from one to two minutes. For ladies it produces the ‘Langtry Style,’ the ‘Patti Bang,’ the ‘Montague Curl,’ and any other form desired by ladies wearing their hair in the fashionable ‘loose and fluffy’ mode. Gentlemen’s moustaches and beards [are] curled for the day in a few seconds.” Neo-Victorians, take note: what you’re missing from your life is a magnetic mustache curler.
Our Bon Ton curling iron was donated by Eugenie Riggs in the 1980s. The original MCHS cataloger called it a “mustache comb” and filed it under “men’s accessories,” perhaps because of additional information given by the donor, but the specific user is unknown. Most, if not all, of the items donated by Mrs. Riggs came from her own family, the LeMerles of Washington; unfortunately, we have no photos of the family members who would have been of an age to employ such a comb, so we can’t be sure if it was used by Dr. Eugene LeMerle to curl his (possibly nonexistent) mustache, or by his wife Virginia to fluff up her (possibly nonexistent) bangs. But I had to put a photo in this post somewhere! So here is a picture of the Talbott family of Gaithersburg, circa 1895, donated by Annette Fletchall. Though we don’t know exactly how they styled their hair in the mornings, both parents, William and Bertha, are candidates for a similar curling iron/comb (click to enlarge and admire).
Looking for more historic mustaches for your Movember celebration? Here’s last year’s A Fine Collection post featuring historic Montgomery County facial hair. Other museums have gotten into the Movember spirit, including the Maryland Historical Society Library and the National Archives; a search on your favorite engine will bring you many more.