We have two contrasting artifacts for you today! First, a ladies’ bustle, from the mid-late 1880s:


Many people have a sense of what a bustle was: a method of supporting a fashionably large skirt in the back. But as a fashion trend, the bustle was not static. Bustles of the early 1870s were wide, drawing the still-full skirts toward the rear. Around 1880 the trend faded somewhat as skirts grew narrower, but as that decade progressed the bustle came back, high and narrow and creating almost a right-angle with the wearer’s back. The undergarments used to create these different silhouettes were many and varied; some were full petticoats or crinolines with the bustle built in, while others were separate accessories. They could be made of steel hoops, layers of fabric, ties and springs, padded rolls, or stiffened hair-cloth (here is a nice assortment of historical examples, and the Metropolitan Museum online collection shows a variety of options).

Our example was originally cataloged as a “child’s bustle,” but while children’s fashions often copied adults’, this bustle was in fact designed for an adult.  Its narrow width (six inches wide) and pronounced shape put it in the mid 1880s.  The waist tape is printed with the manufacturer’s label, now hard to read, but with enough left to inform us that it is one of Christopher C. Shelby’s designs:

T2074 label

Mr. Shelby, of Passaic, NJ, patented a number of “New and Useful Improvements in Bustles” in the 1880s; I’ve not found a definite patent design match for our piece, but it closely resembles this patent from 1888. Even better, similar items can be found in other museum collections, such as this 1884 “New Phantom” model at the Victoria & Albert Museum. (You can also learn how to make your own, here!) The ribs of this bustle are designed to collapse inward when you sit down – likely considered by many women to be a definite “improvement.” Here’s our bustle on a dressform, showing the resultant silhouette (imagine sitting in this if it didn’t accordion inward), and below that is an 1883 Harper’s Bazaar fashion plate, showing the bustle effect in use in “ladies’ walking and evening dresses.”

T2074 in action

Walking (left) and evening (right) dresses, from Harper's Bazaar, December 1883

Walking (left) and evening (right) dresses, from Harper’s Bazaar, December 1883

As for who wore this particular bustle, that’s not entirely clear. Donated by Bob Eckman, it was found on the third floor of a home in Rockville during 1980s renovation work, and we presume it was left there by a previous owner. This Queen Anne style house, at 114 W. Montgomery Avenue, was built around 1890 by Edwin Montgomery West (born 1862), a master builder locally famous for employing the “Rockville Bay” window on many of his homes. West lived here with his family until 1909, at which point they moved to Virginia and sold the house to Judge Winfield Scott Magruder. Judge Magruder’s daughter, Daisy Valeria Magruder (1881-1970), lived here the rest of her life. However, Daisy was a little young for an adult-sized, fashionable bustle of the mid-late 1880s. It could have been brought to the house by her mother, Eleanor Magruder, but I personally favor West’s wife, Olivia Bogley West (born 1873), or even better West’s sister Frances O. Green (born 1860), who lived here along with Edwin and Olivia. Age-appropriate Frances packing away an out-of-fashion accessory in the attic, then forgetting it when the house is sold, makes sense to me… but I’ve not found much information about her that could help to confirm or deny.


I wanted to throw in another artifact today, and I could have gone a few different ways: Another 1880s fashion piece? Something else forgotten in an attic? But instead I decided on this item, with a similar function but, er, in the opposite direction: A bandeau brassiere from the 1920s.


This silk and satin bra, made by the Modishform Company of New York (size 38), was donated by Eugenie LeMerle Riggs, who described it as “a bra designed to flatten, 1922-23.” Indeed, there’s not much room in this garment; the only concessions to the shape of the body underneath are two minor tucks in each side, and the manufacturer’s name is a nod to the wearer’s desire to achieve a “modish form” or silhouette.  Not every woman indulged in a binding brassiere in the 1920s, of course (or in a bustle in the 1880s, either), but the flat-chested fashion wasn’t limited to high-living flappers. The 1927 Sears, Roebuck catalog featured a variety of bandeau bras, “confining” brassieres, and a “Boyshform Brassiere” (fun fact: that company sued Modishform in 1922 for trademark infringement), which “is very popular, as it gives your figure that smart boylike appearance that so many women desire.”

T1674 detail

Unlike the possible bustle-wearers listed above, we know a fair amount about this bra’s owner. Eugenie LeMerle (1904-2003) grew up in Washington, DC, and graduated in 1931 with an architecture degree from what is now George Washington University, where she was voted one of the “six most beautiful women” on campus. She had a brief career as a ballroom dancer, before marrying George Riggs and moving to Ashton to raise a family. She donated a lot of her fashionable clothing, from various decades, to our collections.  In other words, I can well believe she was concerned with presenting an appropriately boyish silhouette during the 1920s.  This isn’t the best pose for showing off said silhouette, but how can I resist adding this fabulous photo of Eugenie LeMerle in 1923?

Framed photograph of Eugenie LeMerle, 1923. Donated by Eugenie L. Riggs.

Framed photograph of Eugenie LeMerle, 1923. Donated by Eugenie L. Riggs.


Whole books have been written about women’s undergarments, fashionable silhouettes, and what both mean for culture, social mores, feminism and femininity, and the like.  In other words, if these artifacts have whetted your appetite, there is much more to learn!  To get you started, here are some larger online exhibits of undergarments: The Victoria & Albert Museum provides a nice overview of late 19th century shaping undergarments;  the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History features a little more about the history of the bandeau bra; and the Museum at FIT has an exhibit (open through November 2014, if you want to visit) titled “Exposed: A History of Lingerie,” which includes an online version.


Bonus artifact! Men’s fashions have not been immune to the need for shape-enhancing (or –reducing) undergarments. However, we don’t have anything along those lines in our collections. Instead, enjoy a look at a now-rare form of support garment for men: a pair of sock garters from the 1950s, intended to help the well-dressed gentleman keep his non-elasticized socks from sagging unbecomingly about his ankles.  These were purchased as vintage pieces by MCHS volunteer Mary Lou Luff, for display in one of our exhibits.


Today we have a desktop seal press or seal embosser from the 1960s.  Though unassuming at first, it has several stories to tell us – let’s take a look.


The press is made of molded metal, measuring 5” tall (10” when the lever is raised), painted black with gold accents. It’s a desktop model with a professional, expensive look, and is heavy enough that it won’t slide around on the desk while you’re stamping your paperwork. The two halves of the 1.75” die, also metal, are custom pieces that impress the desired image – in this case, WTOP AM-FM-TV – onto a piece of paper when the lever is pressed.


Its purpose is similar to that of our 1810s Orphan’s Court seal: marking paper with an official emblem. Unlike an ink or wax impression tool, the embosser uses pressure to imprint a raised mark. It’s a simple process, and one that has been in use for a long time; a search of the U.S. patent database found this “improved” model from 1864, and earlier examples can be found on this collectors website. Customized presses were (and are) used by courts, notaries public, and other officials, as well as corporations, agencies, and private individuals who want their name embossed on their stationery. Our particular piece has no manufacturer information, and its streamlined look doesn’t get us much further than “mid 20th century.” Conveniently enough the seal itself is intact, and the information there helps give us a narrower time frame – and takes us to its second, more specific story.



The AM radio station now known as WTOP came to the DC area in the late 1920s, was purchased by CBS in 1932, and took the call sign WTOP (then at 1500 AM) in 1943. The Washington Post bought a controlling interest in the station in 1949; the following year, the newspaper acquired WOIC-TV, a local CBS station, and changed the call sign to match its sister radio station. WTOP-TV, Channel 9, was born.  Jim Henson’s first television appearances were on WTOP-TV; several still-on-air local newscasters started here; and you can watch some 1950s-70s promos and newscasts online. The station changed its call sign to WDVM in 1978, and to the current WUSA (still a CBS affiliate, on channel 9) in 1986. (For a nice thorough history of the television station, click here or here.)

As for the “FM” included on the seal, as best I can tell (from sites such as this one) the Post purchased the FM frequency of Rockville’s WINX in the 1960s, changing it to WTOP FM; when the station was given to Howard University in 1971, the call sign changed to WHUR.  WTOP was AM-only until a new FM frequency was added to the lineup in the late 1990s. (Radio history fans and researchers don’t mess around, so I found details to spare about WTOP’s AM and TV history – but I’ve not quite confirmed the early WTOP FM part of this story. If anyone can set us straight, please do!)  Since the tv station existed from 1950 to 1978, and the original FM frequency was used in the 1960s through 1971, I’ve given our artifact an appropriately vaguely-specific date of “the 1960s.”


The third part of this artifact’s story relates to where it was found: under the stage at the Bethesda Theater. (If you were hoping I’d talk about the Art Deco WTOP transmitter building in Wheaton, my apologies… but here’s a website with lots of photos for you!) The Bethesda Theater, designed by John Eberson, opened in 1938 as the Boro. Like many 1930s-era movie houses it included a stage below the movie screen for performances, celebrity appearances, etc. I’ve started looking through newspaper articles for references to non-movie events at the theater; for example, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School 1951 commencement ceremony was held there, and I’m sure there are many more. (Please feel free to add your memories of the theater in the comments section.)

The theater has gone through several incarnations over the years (and is still open, though not currently as a film venue).  In 2001, construction began on an apartment building on top of the theater, necessitating both the closure of the Bethesda Theatre Café and an extreme renovation of the space.  Amidst the several-decades-worth of debris under the stage was, oddly enough, this little WTOP seal, evidently forgotten there after some unidentified radio or tv broadcast/taping many years ago.  Theater owner Pete Carney kindly donated it to MCHS.

Today we have a celebratory pennant, welcoming four new Metro Red Line stations to Montgomery County:

DSC07850This 30″ red felt pennant, donated by Trish Graboske, is printed in white with the Metro logo and text: “Montgomery County Welcomes Metro Red Line   December 15, 1984   White Flint   Rockville   Twinbrook   Shady Grove”

Montgomery County is on the Washington Metro’s roughly-U-shaped Red Line, with its upper reaches in the county and the base in D.C.  (Current map here; a history of the system, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, here.) The first station in Montgomery County – Silver Spring, on the eastern arm of the line – opened in 1978.  In 1984, the western arm was extended into the county in two increments, with stations from Tenleytown (in D.C.) to Grosvenor opening on August 25th, and the final four stations from White Flint to Shady Grove opening on December 15th.  (The eastern arm was eventually extended as well, with Forest Glen and Wheaton opening in 1990, and Glenmont in 1998.) 


Metro’s 1984 arrival was seen as a boon for Montgomery County’s commuters and shoppers, particularly as it would relieve heavy traffic on Route 355.  County and municipal governments took the opportunity to revitalize development, entice new suburban residents to the area, and improve roads and infrastructure.  The Red Line caused a few problems just as it alleviated others, however.  Metro construction threatened some historic buildings; residents of Lincoln Park, a predominately African-American neighborhood in Rockville, fought (unsuccessfully) against the closure of a main vehicular access road, which the Red Line crosses.  New traffic woes appeared – a December 16, 1984 Washington Post article suggested alternate routes to “avoid traffic congestion near the Shady Grove Metro station,” on only the second day of operations – and parking lots were quickly overcrowded.  As many current riders know, sometimes Metro travel can be a love-hate situation.

. . . But opening day, December 15, 1984, was a time for celebration, not grievances.  Fares were waived for part of the day; there was free coffee at Shady Grove, a live radio broadcast from White Flint Mall, and musical performances at Shady Grove and Rockville.  A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Rockville station was attended by “about 300 officials, development representatives and Chamber of Commerce types,” according to an article in the Post (“A Rainbow Coalition Flocks to Red Line,” December 16, 1984).  And of course there was giveaway swag, including balloons, cardboard train conductor hats, and red felt pennants like our friend here –  which, judging from photos in the Post, were particularly popular among the children on hand.  WMATA estimated that 26,500 people tested out the four new stations on opening day.

As I read newspaper articles from 1984, looking for mention of our artifact, I found myself wondering, Why a pennant?  True, it’s always fun to wave flags around at events – these pennants were originally on sticks, inserted into the strip of white felt on the end – but why not a rectangular flag?  Perhaps because pennants, so often associated with sports, convey a sense of victory, achievement, and team spirit – all good things at the opening of a major, long-in-coming development.  Those red pennants waving on opening day proclaimed, “Hooray, Metro!”

Bonus photo: Following on the sports/team spirit pennant theme, here’s a 1913 student’s room at the Briarly Hall Military Academy, Poolesville, totally done up with school pennants:

From the 1913 school catalog, courtesy Byron Thompson.

From the 1913 school catalog, courtesy Byron Thompson.

Bonus question, first posed to me by Eileen McGuckian: There’s something slightly off about the wording on the pennant – can you spot it?

The concept of a high chair – a tall, small chair that makes it easier to feed, tend, and occasionally restrain a baby – has been around for a long time.  The Metropolitan Museum has a 17th century high chair in its collections, and the Museum of Fine Arts has an early 18th century example. Just like adult-sized furniture, children’s pieces follow fashions and trends: some are expensive and elaborate, others are throwbacks to an earlier era, and some are more about function than looks.  Here are two infant high chairs in our collections, used around the same time but of very different styles.

two highchairs
On the left is a late 19th century wooden high chair, 37″ tall, owned by the Jacobs family of Browningsville.  It is handmade, and may have been built by Jonathan Jacobs (1845-1919) himself; he was a coach-maker, but an 1867 tax record identifies him as a cabinet-maker as well.  Jonathan and his wife, Mary Manzella Brandenburg Jacobs, had four sons (Willard, Norman, Wriley, and Merle) born between 1875 and 1890.  The chair descended through the family of the youngest son, Merle Jacobs, to Merle’s son Charles, who donated it to MCHS in 1996.

It’s a good old-fashioned Windsor style, often seen in 18th century high chairs, with nicely turned legs, rails, and stretchers, and a shaped seat.  There’s no tray, which is not unusual for early (that is, before the 1950s or so) high chairs, but there is a little footrest, and a small metal eye centered under the seat indicates that there may have been a strap or other restraint to keep any Baby Jacobses from pitching themselves out of the chair headfirst.

DSC07529Though in pretty good shape, it does show evidence of years of use; there are a few old stains on the seat, the finish on the seat and arms is worn down, and several of the peg joints have been repaired and glued.


DSC07513The 37″ tall walnut high chair on the right (and in the detail shot, above) was used around the same time as the Jacobs family’s, but is an example of a popular commercially-made chair.  (If you do an internet image search for “Victorian high chair,” you’ll see what I mean.)  “Convertible” highchairs were made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (examples here); some turned into chair-and-table combos, and others into rocking chairs or, like this one, wheeled walkers:



A number of manufacturers used this distinctive Eastlake-style chair-back design; ours, unfortunately, does not have a maker or store label.  However, family history tells us that it was used by Nourse family of Washington, DC and Darnestown.  (It was thought to have been used a generation earlier, by the Darbys of Seneca, but the design of the chair is too late for an 1850s date.)  Mary Alice Darby (1845-1942) of Seneca married druggist/physician Charles H. Nourse; the 1880 census shows the family in a well-to-do household on New York Avenue, DC, with their children Upton Darby, four years old, and Mary Helen, five months old.  They moved to Darnestown, near Mary Alice’s family, soon thereafter.

The highchair descended through the family of son Upton Darby Nourse to his daughter Rebecca Nourse Chinn and then to her daughter (the donor), Jane Chinn Sween.  Like the Jacobs’ chair, it shows evidence of hard use – the woven back and stamped-leather seat bottom (below) are both replacements – and was probably used for more than one generation.  The Nourse high chair can be seen, usually, in the dining room of the Beall-Dawson house (as a baby’s dining chair, not as a walker).


And now a bonus, to thank my readers for being so patient with today’s at-the-end-of-the-day posting! We have no photos of the above chairs in use … in fact, though we have many pictures of infants and children sitting in baby carriages, on ponies, on the laps and shoulders of family members, and even in a wheelbarrow, we have very few high chair photos.  Happily, we do have this fantastic photo of infant James E. Mason (b. 1896) of Sugarland, posed for a photo in his chair.

Donated by Gwen Hebron Reese.

Donated by Gwen Hebron Reese.

During the research and writing of our laundry exhibit, two themes quickly came to the forefront: Laundry can be difficult, unpleasant work, and it’s much better to get someone else to do it for you.  Today’s artifact will be a familiar one to many of you; those who don’t recognize it instantly will soon see its worth, for who among us has not, at least once, attempted to have our parent, child, sibling, spouse, or roommate do our laundry?


This is an Airway laundry case, from the early 1950s.  It measures 21″ x 12″ by 6.5″, and is made of brown fiberboard, with metal-reinforced corners and a double cotton-twill strap.  A 1950 advertisement for a variety of Airway cases describes this option as a “21-Inch Heavy Fiber Laundry Case. It’s reinforced with riveted metal corners and will withstand a weight of 350 pounds, so it will travel far and often for you. Comes in brown. $3.95.”


Use wear on the corners; the case “traveled far and often,” but at some cost to its structure.

Laundry cases and boxes such as this one were designed for sending laundry through the mail.  The boxes were reusable, and postage costs were often cheaper than local laundry services or Laundromats – such convenience!  Just send your dirty clothes home to Mother, and she’ll send clean clothes back in the same box! Though not exclusively used by college students, this system was certainly popular on campuses around the country, sometimes making up the bulk of a school’s – or even town’s – postal business.  By the 1970s, home (and college) laundry equipment had improved enough, and was common enough, that the practice faded, although I bet there are still some college kids who mail their laundry home.*

Our example was donated by Pat Herman Douglas, a long-time county resident (and MCHS library volunteer) who grew up in Washington, DC and attended Western Maryland College in Westminster, Md., class of 1954.  The box lid includes a metal mailing label holder; though the last-used postage stamp is too faded to read, another stamp gives us the date “Feb 8 1954,” and the typed address label (which includes this helpful fact, “More people are using Airway Laundry Cases than any other Laundry Case”) shows us that its final journey was from the Herman home in DC back to the college.  As recommended by the July 1953 Official Postal Guide, both the lid and the case are also labeled with Miss Herman’s home address.


Mailing label – “Extra cards may be purchased from U.S. Travelwear Corp, Manchester, NH.”


A typed and taped-in label on the underside of the lid: “Property of Miss Pat Herman, 4514 Yuma St NW, Washington 16 D.C.”

The box is still sturdy and stable, but it clearly got some use over the years; this wasn’t a novelty item, or one of those things you think you’ll need and then never end up using.  The donor provided us with some great info about laundry during her college career, 1950-54: The school didn’t have student-use laundry facilities, so while you could take your sheets and linens to be washed at the school laundry, you were on your own for everything else.  There was a Laundromat in Westminster, a long walk away; you might take your easy-to-wash whites (e.g., socks and underwear) there, especially if you could get someone to give you a ride, but for other things – Pat cited wool sweaters, specifically – it was easier and cheaper to mail them off to be done at home, where someone had the expertise and time to do the laundry right.

Western Maryland College – now McDaniel College – has a lot of its archival material scanned and available on the internet.  I’ve had an entertaining time today, looking up “laundry” and “laundromat” in the 1950-1954 catalogs, yearbooks, and newspapers; indeed, one of the patrons in the 1954 yearbook is the “Laundromat,” and the student newspapers include several references to the need for improved laundry facilities.  (There’s even an envious piece in the October 3, 1950 edition of The Gold Bug about a new dorm, equipped with Bendix washers, at Gettysburg College.)

Unlike many of our no-longer-common artifacts, laundry cases are fairly well represented on the internet.  The National Postal Museum has a nice blog post about cases from the USPS perspective, and memories of laundry cases are included in student-life stories and transcripts from colleges such as St. Olaf, Wellesley, and the University of Iowa.  Laundry really is everywhere.

*(Instead of simply waiting until the end of the semester, and bringing it all home at once.)

How did you get to work today?  Montgomery County residents have a variety of options: car, bus, Metro, MARC Train, bicycle, foot power, the internet.  What you choose depends on many variables, including where you are, where you’re going, what you need to bring with you, and how much each option costs per day. If you travel the same way most days, you’ve probably invested in a few things to make your commute a little easier and/or cheaper – car and office keys on the same ring, a bag for your bike helmet, an EZ Pass on your windshield, a Metro Smartcard or MARC monthly pass in the front of your wallet.

20130501120121_00001Here’s the 1915 version: a Quarterly Commutation Ticket for the B&O Railroad, valid for 180 rides between Gaithersburg and Washington, DC, from May through July.  It is a handy little pocket-sized cardboard folder, 4.5″ x 2.5″ (when folded), covered in green canvas.  Inside is a page where the conductor punched out the rides by number.  The text on the inside reads:

top portionBaltimore & Ohio Railroad
Quarterly Commutation Ticket.
This ticket will entitle JB Ely
to 180 rides between Washington, D.C. and Gaithersburg, Md.
During the three months ending July 31, 1915
upon the conditions named on back hereof, which must be signed by purchaser before ticket is valid for passage.
88997                    O.P. McCandy, Passenger Traffic Manager

bottom portionCONTRACT.
In consideration of the reduced fare at which this ticket was sold, I agree that its use shall be subject to the following conditions:
1. If presented by other than myself, or if any condition of this contract is violated, it becomes void, may be taken up by the conductor and fare collected.
2. It must be presented each trip to the conductor for cancellation, and is valid for the passage only on trains designated and advertised to stop regularly at stations named hereon.
3. It conveys no stop-over privilege and does not permit checking of baggage thereon.
4. The right of the company is conceded to change the time of arrival or departure of its trains, or to diminish their number at its option.
I, the original purchaser, hereby agree to above contract, and will sign my name and otherwise identify myself as such whenever called upon to do so by any conductor or agent of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and on my failure or refusal this ticket shall thereafter become void.  [stamped] B&O RR Co May 1 1915 Agent Gaithersburg Md.

John Ball Ely (1875-1964) of Gaithersburg was an insurance agent.  On his 1918 draft card, he named his employer as the Equitable Life Insurance Co., on 14th Street, Washington, DC; he most likely worked for that firm, or for another downtown company, for most of his career.  Mr. Ely, originally from Harford County, married Essie M. L. Crawford (1882-1959) of Gaithersburg in 1906, and the couple stayed in that town the rest of their lives, living in various homes near the center of town on Park, Brooks, Russell, and Diamond Avenues.  Gaithersburg is conveniently located on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Metropolitan Line, which runs from Point of Rocks to DC by way of central Montgomery County.  What better way for Mr. Ely to reach his downtown job every day than by rail?

The text in the “CONTRACT” makes it clear that this was a deal specifically designed by the B&O Railroad for commuters: reduced fare, no baggage checking, no stop-overs.  You couldn’t use this Gaithersburg-to-DC pass for excursion trips to Point of Rocks, or to visit Aunt Millie in Dickerson. The Metropolitan Line was completed in 1873, and by improving transportation to and from Washington it greatly facilitated the practicality of living in the suburbs while working in the city.  It wasn’t used solely for commuting, by any means, but that was a large part of the line’s business (and still is; today, the line is owned by CSX and used by CSX, Amtrak and MARC trains for freight, long-distance, and commuter travel).

This May-July 1915 pass doesn’t appear to have quite all its 180 rides used up (though it’s hard to tell because the punching, what’s left of it, is pretty haphazard), but it clearly got a lot of use.  I also notice that Mr. Ely did not, as instructed, sign the contract on the dotted line.  Likely, this pass was one in a long series, and the various train conductors knew him by sight if not name; why bother to sign it? Everyone knew who he was.  We have no photos of the Elys in our collections; nor do we have additional stories thanks to donors, as we purchased this ticket from a local antique store (props to Jennie, our Office Manager, for spotting it!).  But, more so than some of our artifacts, this little commuter’s pass stands on its own in many ways, telling a quick little story of a suburban resident’s daily activities.

The Gaithersburg station (looking north up the tracks), 1911.  Picture our Mr. Ely here every morning and evening; he probably walked the few blocks home.  Photo by Lewis Reed, donated by the Reed family.

The Gaithersburg station (looking north up the tracks), 1911. Picture our Mr. Ely here every morning and evening; he probably walked the few blocks home. Photo by Lewis Reed, donated by the Reed family.

Bonus! In honor of May Day, and because the “occupation” part of the census is the best bit if you ask me, here are the jobs noted on the Elys’ census page in 1910.  In that year, John and Essie Ely were living with Essie’s aunt and uncle, the Hogans, at the corner of Park and Diamond Avenues in Gaithersburg.  Mr. Hogan was “installing telephones” (he was also a baker) and Mrs. Hogan was the town telephone operator; their nephew Charles Crawford, also living with them, was a telephone lineman.  (For many years, the town’s telephone switchboard was in fact installed in the Hogans’ house.)  Their neighbors – many of whom were probably living above their shops, as Diamond is one of the town’s main streets – included: two tinners, a gardener, a dressmaker, laborers in a store and a livery stable, a blacksmith with his “own shop,” “plumber, own shop,” “laundry, own shop” (that would be Charlie Foo, a Chinese immigrant and a story all to himself… for another time), the postmaster (plus the postal clerk, an unrelated young man, was boarding with this family), a bank clerk, and the railroad baggage master.

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.