Here’s another peculiar curling iron, designed to achieve a specific style: A Marcel waver from the late 1920s.

In 1987, Alice Harmon donated a set of hairstyling objects used by her mother: an electric curling iron (patented 1927), a large box of metal hair or “bobby” pins, a small paper packet of same, and this Marcel waver, complete with box and instructions. (She also donated a photograph, to illustrate the end result of all these tools, but more on that in a moment.) Mrs. Harmon’s mother, Edith D. Stultz Anderson Smith, was born around 1898, and moved to Bethesda from Frederick County in 1927. She first married a Mr. Anderson, and had two daughters; her second husband (married 1924), L. Emory Smith, was an assistant lineman for the Capitol Traction streetcar company. We don’t know very much else about her – except that she was, at least for a time, interested in fashionable hairstyles.

The Marcel wave, theoretically named for its French inventor, showed up occasionally in the late 19th century but really hit its stride in the 1920s and 1930s, along with short, bobbed hairstyles for women. If you’ve ever glanced through a fashion magazine from the 1925-1935 era – or watched a Busby Berkeley musical – you’ve seen a Marcel wave. It resembles a finger wave, but purists (okay, the Wikipedia page authors) claim that a true Marcel wave is achieved only with a curling iron, not your fingers. Though you could use a plain, straight single-barreled iron, a curved double-barrel like this one was more effective, especially if you wanted multiple waves.

Our waver was sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and is probably an electric “Challenge Waver,” now missing its electrical cord (they were detachable). The instructions, shown above, explain how to use different irons and wavers to create variations on the Marcel wave. I should have just gone ahead and dated this post to 1927, since that is the year Mrs. Smith moved to Bethesda, the year her other curling iron was patented, and, conveniently, the year of my Sears catalog which features all these irons and wavers and more. Oh, so many hairstyling tools! Here’s a close-up of the Challenge Waver (only 98 cents); I’ve included the full catalog pages of its friends at the bottom of the post.

As for the photograph of Mrs. Smith: At some point the photo went missing, but I discovered this unidentified image in a box of miscellaneous “style reference” photos collected by previous textile volunteers. This fashionable young woman is certainly rocking the Marcel look, and I want to think it is Edith herself; unfortunately, Mrs. Harmon (the donor and Edith’s daughter) has since died, so I haven’t been able to confirm or deny. Do any of my readers remember Edith D. Smith of Arlington Road, Bethesda?

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