V41: Edwardian Hair Styling Mysteries Solved – Part 2 – Brushing, Crimping, Fire

Last time in Part 1 of this series, I introduced you to some rather “exciting” sounding Edwardian shampoo and hair dressing recipes, taken from “The Manual on Barbering, Hairdressing, Manicuring, Facial Massage, Electrolysis and Chiropody” by A.B. Moler, published in 1905.  I would also like to introduce you to another book, “Beauty Aids, or, How to Be Beautiful,” by Countess C—, 1901, available in full on Google Books.

This time we will look at how the hair was cared for in terms of brushing, combing, singeing, roughing, marceling and crimping.

Brushing and Combing
You will see two very modern instruments in Moler’s book – the air-cushion hairbrush, made of boar bristle or wire; and the comb, then made of rubber, now plastic, with varying spacing of teeth.

The comb, of course, is used to work through tangles, recommended to start from the ends of the hair and work upwards.  They are also used for parting the hair, and in the singeing method, which we’ll look at later.  Countess C– warns against combing too roughly, so as not to damage the scalp.

It is the brush that is secret.  A brush made with real boar bristles is extremely important.  Boar bristle is the stiff hair of pigs, and has been used to make brushes for centuries.  It moves the oils of the scalp through the hair in a unique way, and also stimulates the scalp and encourages new growth.  You will find when you use a boar bristle brush, the hair becomes fuller and fluffier – this is because this kind of brush sortof “binds” the hair together rather than separates, as a wire or plastic brush will.  Bristle brushes also make far more effective teasing and smoothing implements than do combs.

Of brushing, Countess C— notes, “The brush is preferable to the comb, to rid the skin of the impurities and dust which fly about in the atmosphere…”

Crimping and The Marcel Wave
Crimping is what we would call just curling today, achieved with hot irons, like it is today.  Irons back in 1905 were heated on a gas stove, and applied to hair divided into fairly small sections.  Moler describes the technique as follows:

Hold the iron closed in the righ hand, pick up the strand of hair divided for the curl in the left hand; hold the iron about one inch from the head an begin winding he hair around the iron, starting in the center of the iron and winding towards the end until about one-half of the length of the strand is crimped, then turn the iron down to the head, crimping it close to the roots.

The idea was to curl the hair, then comb it out to create fluffy waves.  For straight-haired ladies, this was done before any styling.  For curly-haired ladies, you get to skip this step.

Marcel Waving is something entirely different.  Named after Marcel Grateau, who invented the technique in 1875, this kind of wave was done with a specific iron that was clamped on the hair right-side-up, then up-side down, alternating all the way down, creating three dimensional waves. The entire head was marcel waved before styling.

You can do both crimping and marcel waving today with your curling iron, and you don’t have to keep sticking it in the gas stove to keep the heat.  We even have triple-barreled irons just for waving, like this one:

The smaller the iron, the tighter the wave, but also the smaller the divisions of hair must be, and the longer it will take.

This is the old-fashioned word for teasing, ratting, and backcombing.  Quite a lot of roughing was done to achieve the large styles of this period.  Don’t be afraid of it!  Where you want volume, hold the hair straight up and comb backwards, towards the scalp, on the underside.  I like to use a bristle comb for this, and give it a mist with the very anachronistic hairspray, before smoothing into place.

I don’t think I need to tell you not to do this…but don’t do this.  Singeing was the technique of burning the ends of your hair to keep them from splitting.  Moler claims that this “closes the pores and keeps the fluid in the hair and gives it a livelier and healthier appearance.”  Riiiight.

To singe the hair, divide it into sections and twist the sections tightly, then pass an open flame over the top, burning away the little short hairs that are ticking out.  After lighting your hair on fire, Moler recommends brushing away the burnt ends to “avoid the appearance of singed hair.”  Y’think?

If you’ve ever wondered why Edwardian women’s hair looked frizzy, singeing it probably the answer.  Then again, maybe this is the key to fantastic period hairstyling, and we are all too sensible to try it (and that includes me.)

So now we’ve washed the hair with funky Edwardian shampoo, have combed it out, brushed it, and either curled or waved it (and you crazy lot have singed it).  We’re now ready to style the hair, coming up in Part 3…


  • M'lady

    February 10, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    I do 'marcel waves' with my 'short hair straighteners' and *lots* of product. As the triple barrel irons I find too think and I just and up getting a tiny amount of hair and burning myself. I've tried finger waves and it don't stay more than an hour at most.

  • Moxie Tonic

    February 10, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    Nothing like the smell of burning hair to make one feel beautiful, lol! Although I do recall my mom doing similar to deal with my split ends, only once the hair is twisted, you snip the ends off instead on burning them. Much preferable to the risk of your whole head going up in flame.
    Wow, if only my hair looked like that last photo normally!

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    February 10, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    Interesting! I do a lot of historical hair ups for Leimomi's talks and whenever I tease hair I feel like I am cheating, but models turn up with clean, shiny, straight hair and we have 2 hours to do 10 of them so I do it to save time. Now I won't feel like I am cheating after all! 🙂

  • Quinn

    February 11, 2012 at 2:11 AM

    I am super amused by the section on singeing! It sounds like a crazy idea! I'm pretty sure my hair would not look better if I attempted that… I have used a boar bristle brush for most of my life and I highly recommend them. They are fabulous–nice and stiff. On another note, I always avoid teasing my hair because it seems like it will be so hard to tame it again and get the snarls out. I have curly, frizzy hair to begin with (actually, when it's brushed out it does look like the last picture…), so you can understand my concern. I wonder if anyone else with similar hair has teasing thoughts?

    • Lauren R

      February 11, 2012 at 6:09 AM

      Quinn, my personal recommendation is to try teasing your hair and see how it goes. My fine hair I can tease and tease, spray, and it still has trouble holding. A little teasing for some might go a long way, a lot of teasing for some might only go a little way. If yours is hair that will turn into a rat's nest, try a strong conditioner to untangle.

  • Lynn Brooks

    February 11, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    quinn, i too have thick coarse hair. i never hesitate to throw some teasing in when i style needs it. as for the comb out the next day, my hair doesn't look right down (a hot mess), so I'll just wear it all up until i'm ready to wash it.
    I don't need to use a stronger conditioner, i tend to iuse mostly redken products which are water soluble, so no ,atter how much hairspray i have in, it rinses clean out.

  • KittyKatt

    February 13, 2012 at 12:08 AM

    I wonder if those old waving irons from the 80s would work to acheive the wavy look? I saw one once that wasn't too tight looking, and had interchangeable heads so it sould accomplish a lot, though probably none of it well…

  • Miri

    February 14, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    Actually, I think singeing is still done in a gentler way. There are electric heat scissors that are are supposed to seal (read: melt the surface of the cut together) the tips to prevent splitting when your hair is cut with them. Of course, it's marketed in in fancy scientific terms with microscopic images and whatnot…but the basic principle seems to be the same to me.
    To be honest, we still do pretty much the same nasty things to our hair as we did all that time ago, only the marketing is nicer.

    I love information about historical hair treatment & styling! Thanks for these posts 🙂

  • Melissa

    May 7, 2012 at 6:10 AM

    I love that you have an illustration of a gas stove in this blog post. I found one the other day at my favorite antique store to go with my great grandmother's curling iron. You blogs are full of awesome information. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  • kittyluvscrochet

    July 13, 2016 at 4:04 PM

    Coming in late to this, but my hair stylist does what he calls dusting, in which he does the twisting that the Edwardian hairdresser did when singing. However, my stylist then snips all the bits of hair that stick out from the twist rather than burning them. Afterwards he applies a light conditioner with warm water then rinses it with cool water to make the cuticle of the hairs flatten out.

  • Callie J

    October 31, 2017 at 9:08 PM

    I can't do any modern hair styles at all, but my mid-thigh-length naturally curly hair does historical styles with ease. Even for 1870s-1880s I don't need any fake hair, I just reproduce the fashion plate!

    I do wish I could do 40s styles sometimes but I can't face cutting my hair…..

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