All about those curls…
Mar 4, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This weekend I spent a good deal of my time ironing. There is something almost therapeutic about this routine task – bringing forth order from all those pesky wrinkles! As the steam hissed I was thankful for the advancements in hair technology. That might sound like a leap, but just a few decades ago it was very common for gals to place their flowing locks onto the ironing board. As a ritual of female friendship and a rite of passage, duos would help straighten each other’s manes. Celebrities like Ali MacGraw or Maureen McCormick fueled the popularity of this natural look (which was anything but natural for some women). Speaking as a gal with short hair and a devotion to my flat iron, I couldn’t imagine navigating the 1970s.
Styling hair has never been a simple task. Trends come and go. Styles fade in and out of popularity. For every woman who wants to straighten her curls or waves, there’s another woman desperate to bring some curl into their lives. While many credit Marcel Grateau as the father of the modern beauty salon industry, the origin stories of the curling iron and flat iron are a bit more complex. Let’s discover more about all those curls and let us know about your hair care rituals in the comments!
Pursuing beauty is nothing new – women and men have used pigments and ointments to enhance their appearance for eons. Certain colors and styles could indicate socio-economic status. (In fact, in ancient Egypt curls were seen as a luxury reserved for the elite class.) With scientific advancements, the beauty industry became big business. Hair styling tools rose right alongside the fledgling cosmetics industry. In 1895 a schoolteacher in Indiana patented the flat iron. While this was a couple decades after Marcel and his iconic wave rocked the Paris fashion scene, Ada Harris’ design marked a huge development. Her invention, which resembled tongs, had teeth to separate the hair and provide better heat distribution. Keep in mind that all this happened before electricity, so irons would have been heated over the open flame. Delivering heat more evenly made a big difference and reduced breakage. But this invention was distinct for another really cool reason: as the patent notes, it was created specifically for the African American community. Ada, beyond being a brilliant inventor, was a light in her community and received much praise in her local newspapers. Alas, she wasn’t able to capitalize on her invention but every modern flat iron owes a debt to Ada’s vision.
The curling iron was first patented around the same time as Ada’s flat iron, but received substantially more publicity. After the turn of the century, as the world was just entering the Jazz Age, Vogue advertised a curling iron for the wonderful sales price of about $4 (or nearly $100 in today’s money). Despite their glamorous advertisements, curling irons were considered a dirty little secret. You see, any attempts to significantly alter a woman’s natural appearance was considered crass. Painted faces were a sign of low moral standards and unnaturally curled hair was lumped into that same category. But with the challenges of a world war, followed by a time of excess and unprecedented female independence, beauty rituals were suddenly viewed through different lenses.
Check out this fun article about curling irons & Downton Abbey
As electricity flowed into homes coast-to-coast, progress could not be stopped. Part of that modernization included appliances – and as the 70s reminds us – hair styling tools weren’t remarkably different from their counterparts in the kitchen. The principles of controlled, precise heat revolutionized ovens as well as curling and flat irons. During the late 1950s two Frenchmen created the first mass-produced electric curling iron. I find it interesting that the French can be credited with both starting and growing the curling craze, don’t you? In ten short years the curling iron had invaded nearly every home in America. However, if you peruse the aisles for a curling iron today you are not seeing a design from the 1950s, but rather one inspired by the 1980s. Theora Stephens, another African American inventor, is credited with making the breakthroughs in curling iron technology we enjoy today. I’m not able to find out much information about Theora’s life other than the fact that her profession was listed as hairdresser, but I imagine Ada would have been very proud of Theora!
Learning about the contributions of these two amazing female inventors, working and living during two vastly different eras has me thinking about the importance of beauty. I’m not speaking of pursuits simply for vanity’s sake, but practices that can empower. Defining how you present yourself to the world can be uplifting. It’s why economists see sales of beauty products rise during times of economic strife. This “lipstick effect” could be easily pushed aside as superficial, but I think that misses the point. Sometimes when you feel blue a little pep goes a long way. It’s something Holly Golightly captured so well when she quipped: “Hand me my purse, darling. A girl can’t read this sort of thing without her lipstick.” Little things like lipstick or a bouncy curl matter. This is something Theora, Ada, and Marcel understood. Tell me, dear reader, what beauty practices help you feel ready to tackle the day?