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Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Spotlight on DHR Collections: Celebrating Our Shared Hair-itage or Hirsute Pursuits

Historical curling tong.
A pair of colonial-era curling tongs that archaeologists recovered in Westmoreland Co., Va.

What tools do you use to style your hair…a comb…a curling wand? Do you need the help of others to create a unique hair style? Grooming says a lot about how much time we have to devote to our appearance, as well as the nature of our daily activities. Remember how difficult it was for some of us to get haircuts at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic? We have really came to appreciate our allies in hair care!

Our day-to-day tasks dictate whether we can accommodate an extravagant hairdo or if a more practical, easy-to-care-for style is best. Archaeologists sometimes discover the discarded or lost remnants of haircare accessories. Combs, hair brushes, wrought iron curling tongs, and ceramic wig hair curlers are a few examples of these grooming accessories that are occasionally unearthed. More than a few artifacts reflecting our relationship with hair care are reverently curated in DHR’s archaeological collections.

Lice have plagued people for as long as we’ve have had the tresses to support them. Grooming combs are a favorite weapon against these pests, whose long-term and stubborn attraction to our hair has brought us such common words as “lousy” and “nitpicky.” Combs featuring fine teeth are crucial for removing lice and nits. Combs such as these are one of the most commonly found artifacts associated with hair care and grooming.

The grooming comb (pictured below) was a popular style, featuring large teeth on one side for de-tangling, and fine teeth on the other for dispelling lice and their eggs. Archaeologists found it at a site in the present-day City of Suffolk. People from all over the world used combs similar to this.

Elaborately styled hair—past and present–requires significant leisure time to create, and it often warrants the help of others to achieve. Once these hairstyles are in place, the well-coiffed person often has to avoid bad weather or sudden movement to maintain the style. Think about some of the finely braided, curled, straightened, colored, or decorated hairstyles that you’ve seen: those fancy follicles required time and skill to produce.

Ceramic wig hair curler fragments pictured below feature a red-clay example (top) made locally; the white-clay fragment was imported from England. Wooden curlers were also available, but because wooden objects do not preserve in the ground, archaeologists rarely encounter them. During the 18th century in Virginia, wearing a wig was popular among influential men, who shaved their heads to accommodate these expensive accessories. Wig-hair curlers were commonly used to (as the name implies) curl wig hair. They were never used on natural hair. These particular curlers were found in Williamsburg, where barbershops thrived in Virginia’s colonial capital. Archaeologists also discover curlers like these at home sites, but in smaller numbers than are found at barbershops.

People used wrought iron curling tongs—such as the ones from the 1700s pictured below—to curl hair, both wig hair and a natural head of hair. The tongs were heated on embers and applied to (ideally) damp hair to achieve a curl. Hairdressers had to be careful to ensure their client’s scalp was not burned.

Our hairstyle reveals a great deal about how physically strenuous our daily tasks are, how much time we have to have our hair styled, and how much help we need to create it. The remains of the tools used to groom and style hair in the past reflect the prevalence of pests such as lice and how much leisure time people could devote to creating elegant hairstyles. When archaeologists discover one of these tools, insights into health and hygiene, leisure time, and the availability of hairstylists can be discerned.

Further Reading

—Laura Galke
Chief Curator, DHR

Editor’s Note: Laura Galke’s article, cited above, “’Tressed for Success:’ Hair Care at Washington’s Childhood Home,” was awarded the 2019/2020 Winterthur Portfolio Grier Prize for Best Article. Congratulations, Laura!

Updated December 16, 2020