The ability to create luscious, full-bodied curls has never been simpler. Brands offer an array of heat control settings, barrel shapes, and sizes, as well as cordless electrical designs. But styled curls have been depicted in art and literature for thousands of years, begging the question, when was the first curling iron invented?
Believe it or not, some of the oldest curling irons date back to 1500B.C1. The ancient Egyptians would heat tongs made of bronze over a fire and then wrap the hair around them in a similar fashion to modern styling techniques.
As you can imagine, styling hair using an open flame was not only dangerous but damaging to the hair follicles. So what was the evolution of the curling iron, and how did they come to be the advanced tools we have today?
Let’s walk through the curling iron history timeline.
1500B.C - The Ancient Egyptians created curling tongs using bronze heated over a fire.
500 - 300B.C - The Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks used an iron rod called a Calamistrum heated in hot wood-ashes to mimic the hairstyles of their gods and goddesses.
1500s - Tongs shaped like scissors with rounded edges made entirely of metal came into use
1600s - Clay pipe curlers that were heated in the oven were created
1700s - Pipe curlers were made from Cane, boxwood, and willow that did not get as hot. These were easier to handle and less damaging.
1800s - Victorian curling tongs had handles made of wood, ivory, and silver that could be heated on the stovetop.
1866 - Hiram Maxim obtains the first patent for a curling iron in 1866.
1872 - Marcel Grateau is credited for inventing the curling iron and his famous look “The Marcel Wave”
1905 - Grateau patents his design under the new name François Marcel Woelfflé.
1959 - Two Frenchmen Rene Lelievre and Roger Lemoine invented the electric curling iron
1965 - The first patent design for a curling iron with interchangeable barrels and use of air technology is submitted
1980s - The perm becomes fashionable, seeing both men and women ditch their curling irons and head to the salons
1980 - Black female hairdresser Theora Stephens is granted a patent for her more efficient pressing and curling iron, with heat control settings and a spring closing clamp.
1988 - The ZeeCurl is released, allowing stylists to create “z” shaped curls
1987 - The FrenZee is released, allowing the public to also achieve the “z” shaped curly look
1990s - Poker-straight hair becomes popular
2000s - Curling the hair using straighteners becomes popular, due to their advanced heat control settings and plate materials
2018 - Dyson uses their knowledge of airflow technology to create the Airwrap, able to dry, smooth and curl hair from damp with less heat.
2020 - Wylera releases patented design for an automated, wireless hair curler
As you can see, there have been many changes to the design of the curling iron over the years. But what has remained the same about each design is the use of heat to achieve styles from tight ringlets to big bouncy waves.
Our hair is made up of keratin proteins, natural oils, and hydrogen bonds and the different compositions of these 3 ingredients create our various natural hair types. Applying heat breaks down these hydrogen bonds, while stripping away the proteins and oils, creating a texture to the hair that can be molded into the look you desire2.
It wasn’t long before our earliest civilizations discovered the effects heat had on our locks and started us on a path to style development.
As you can see above, the curling iron evolved over thousands of years before the discovery of electricity. Although the exact conception date cannot be pinpointed, the ancient Egyptians provide the earliest archeological evidence of hairstyling.
From 500 - 300 B.C Ancient Greeks and Romans adopted the use of a hollow iron rod called a Calamistrum3 to mimic the tumbling curls of the gods and goddesses depicted in art and sculpture. The rod would be heated in hot wood-ashes and then used just like a modern-day curling wand - minus the heat control.
Little changed for the curling iron over the next few thousand years, until the 16th century. These curlers were similar to scissors in design, with rounded edges to both wrap the hair and clamp it in place. This design formed the foundation of curling irons as we know them today.
In the 1600s a new design similar to rollers in appearance was created. These pipe clay curlers could be heated in an oven before use, eliminating the need for an open flame. In the 1700s these developed further, cane, boxwood, and willow versions were created that did not get as hot, making them easier to handle and less damaging to the hair follicles.
In 1765 a design emerged with only one smaller moving prong that the hair would be wrapped around and then clamped into a larger grooved prong on the opposite side. The last of these basic designs came in the early 1800s when metal hinged curling tongs were made with wooden, ivory, and silver handles. These were sometimes extravagantly designed7.
The question of who invented the curling iron comes with lots of debate. Although widely documented that the curling iron was originally invented in 1872, inventor Hiram Mixam actually first patented the curling iron in 1866.
Despite this, it is Marcel Grateau who is credited as the inventor of the curling iron. In his french salon, he designed a heavier tong that could create waves by clamping the hair between an empty concave part below and a full convex part above4. His design accentuated the imprint of the wave and his famous look was praised throughout Paris, known as “The Marcel Wave”.
Grateau kept his design and technique a secret and for 15 years, between 1882 and 1897, he charged the richest and wealthiest clientele per hair wave in a secret room. His success allowed him to retire at the age of 45, purchasing a castle in Normandy with his wealth.
In 1905 he patented his design under the name François Marcel Woelfflé5 and continued to update his designs, registering patents until he died in 1936.
At the beginning of the 20th century, electricity was still a luxury for the rich. But by 1925 around half of US homes had electric power6 and the market for electric appliances began to establish itself.
In 1959 two Frenchmen Rene Lelievre and Roger Lemoine invented the electric curling iron. Thanks to the post-wartime wealth in the sixties, appliances such as curling irons were no longer just for the upper classes. Widely sold in drug stores, almost every woman’s home had an electric curler by the end of the decade8.
The first patent for a curler with varying barrel sizes came in 19659. Almost ahead of its time, this design also provided a blast of hot or cold air to simultaneously dry and style the hair. The idea was that you could adjust the tightness of the curl depending on which barrel you used, while also setting your style using the air blowing element.
Theora Stephens, a black female hairdresser, revolutionized the design of the electric curling iron in 1980. She was granted a patent for the “more efficient pressing and curling iron”10. Creating a way to control the temperature of the appliance, saving our tresses from unnecessary heat damage, as well as a spring-loaded clamp.
Although hair curlers continued to develop in the late 20th century, they were overshadowed by the changing trends of the time.
The eighties saw the popular perm take center stage11. A chemical process that changes the molecular structure of the hair, a perm could create long-lasting waves and curls, eliminating the need for daily curling iron use. Both men and women of the time flocked to salons to achieve permanent bold curls - the bigger the better! Leaving their curling irons on the shelves.
Some of you may have fallen victim to the poker-straight hair trends of the nineties and noughties12. Hair straighteners were all the rage, with center partings and damaged ends, women heat styled their way to flattened and sleek hair.
In the 2000s hair straighteners were more sophisticated than curling irons. Ionic and ceramic plates had hit the market, and the temperature control was more advanced. It followed suit that around this time many women opted to curl their hair using straighteners rather than their old hair curlers.
Changes to the barrel designs have been one of the biggest revolutions to the curling iron throughout history. As electric curling irons grew in popularity, the Wahl Clipper Company designed a thin barreled tool that allowed stylists to create new “z” shaped curls13.
Released in 1987 for the specialist market, the “ZeeCurl” could create a variety of new textures for all hair types. Following its success, a patron model became available in 1988, named “the Frenzee”. Allowing for more versatile home heat styling than had previously been available.
Primitive examples of metal curling wands can be seen throughout history. However, it was the two-pronged hinged designs, providing more control of the hair, that rose in popularity over the last few centuries. Thus the curling wand as we know it today seems to be a more modern styling tool than our trusty curling tongs.
Over the last twenty years, curling wands have seen a rise in demand, as designs with tapered barrels made of more sophisticated materials have hit the market. Wands can create looser curls and are incredibly easy to use for all hair types. However, traditional curling irons can create a tighter more uniform curl, so still have a place in our styling repertoire.
While the standard clamped design of the curling iron remains popular in the 21st century, a rise in technological advancement has seen some innovative models enter the market.
Dyson14, previously known for their powerful vacuum cleaners brought the 1965 multi-barrel curling iron design to new levels. Also harnessing the power of airflow, the groundbreaking styling tool released in 2018 can dry, curl or smooth the hair at much lower temperatures than heated metal tongs.
Automated curling tools have simplified the styling process way beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Wylera’s patented “Dreamwave” technology15 released in 2020 allows you to select your preferred styling time, and the machine does the rest of the work. Not only is the design compact and lightweight, but it’s also wireless!
It is safe to say that the history of curling irons shows just how advanced hairstyling has become. From the simple metal tong designs of the Ancient Egyptians, relying on dangerous flames to create their extravagant looks. We now have safer, smarter curling irons that are still evolving to give us more control and freedom over our desired hair-dos.
It will be interesting to see what more we can do to evolve this historical styling tool.