Heirlooms and Lost Arts

curling iron


When I brought this home, I asked family members and some guests who happened to be over if they could identify it.

Everyone agreed that it was a lamp, and a short discussion occurred over whether it was a kerosene lamp or some other type of oil. When they were done guessing, I told them that they were all wrong: it was a curling iron.

Furthermore, it was a curling iron that had been in my mother’s family for a number of generations.

I doubt very much that it was one of the few items brought over by the Swedish farmers who emigrated to the US in the early nineteenth century.


old relativesI do have one of the items they brought, a Swedish Bible, well used, printed on cheap paper, with a lot of handwriting scrawls on the front and back leaves by young ancestors.

Including a drawing of what I guess was an 1860s fashion plate.

But from the looks of my ancestors in the photo they sat for in the middle of the century, after having crossed to Minnesota by covered wagon and settling there on their farm, a curling iron was not in much use.

elder women

It doesn’t look like it was in much use during the next generation, either, though one of those women got hold of it.


Maybe they even traded it around, because the following generation (my great-grandmother is the baby at the bottom) were using it in the 1880s.


You can see the effect in the girls’ hair, my Aunt Hilma’s pouf at the top (she’s on the left) of which she was apparently inordinately proud. The elder sister, Aunt Tyn, had the more conventional sausage curls. (Uncle Oskar was born with naturally curly hair. Of course.)

That curling iron came down to my grandmother’s family.

She talked about how you never washed your hair in winter, supposedly because it guaranteed illness, as did bare feet. But that only makes sense when it’s forty below, the house is warmed by an inefficient fireplace, and you have to use the outhouse. You don’t want to be going out there in forty-below weather with a wet head.

“When did you wash your hair?” I asked, appalled.

“In the spring, if you needed it,” was the answer. Instead, you brushed and brushed it until it shone. Brushing long hair tired your arm, but the natural oils kept it looking lovely even if you washed it once a year. (And considering how harsh their soaps were—gentle shampoo is a relatively new invention—just as well.)

You filled the reservoir with oil, lit the wick, and waited until the iron got hot. Then you wrapped a lock of hair around your finger, pulled the finger out, and inserted the iron into the sausage and crimped. You could smell your hair cooking, so damping it a bit helped keep it from getting burned.

When did you curl? Well, for special events, like the harvest festival around Halloween, when everyone would pile into the wagon, which the kids had decorated, and go to the church green. There might be taffy pulls. There would be bobbing for apples. Someone would play a fiddle and get up some dancing. And there would be tons of great food.


Curling didn’t happen every day, except in rich families, my grandmother said, where a maid was in charge. Or sisters would curl each other, if permitted.

Here’s a picture of my mom, who had her portrait taken as a kid in the early forties, a rarity, but my grandmother was driving out with three other women cross country to seek their fortunes in L.A. and she wanted pix of her kids. You can see the curling iron sausages carefully coaxed over her shoulders.

If your hair was long enough, and the weather permitted, you used rags.


There’s an art to rags in hair. I used that method when I was young. I’m including a snap from my wedding day in 1980, just after I pulled the rags out. My sister is making up my face (which is the last time I ever wore make-up).

What heirlooms and lost arts do you have in your family?



Heirlooms and Lost Arts — 25 Comments

  1. …my grandmother was given a Sheaffer Balance Radite Green fountain pen … about $20 retail at the time-1929- by way of a high school graduation present. The small scholarship she earned to a teacher’s college in KC, MO was not quite enough to cover expenses … and the depression quashed all hope of her becoming a teacher. But, through all the years, that pen was saved and used (when it could have been pawned). It was the “family pen” used to write tuition checks for her kids, all 6 of which she saw made it through college. And I have it now, under glass. I have replaced the rubber bladder, but the gold writing nib is as smooth and strong as ever, and I get it out every year or so when I need to sign the master’s thesis of one of my students. A tradition of literacy and education and sacrifice and celebration. It just seems to come alive when put to paper.

      • This is one of the “Lifetime” white dot pens – warranted for the lifetime of the original owner. I was given the stewardship of the pen just after her 100th birthday, and I had a nice long talk with her about the odd office jobs she had, and the Palmer method script she was so proud of. I practiced the Spencerian script all summer before that, so I could show off. It is indeed a treasure!

        • Spencerian is so beautiful, and a nib with an edge makes such elegant up and down strokes. (I had a gorgeous fountain pen back in the seventies, that permitted me to get about a thousand words per page in a bound book, but someone stole it, alas.)

          • …woah, bummer about a stolen pen! My favorite pen I carry for daily use is a modern one made by Noodler’s Ink (Ebonite Konrad) which comes by default with a nice steel flexible nib. I swapped that out for a fine, flexible 14kt gold mib made by the Conklin company around 1903 – before Einstein published, before the Bohr model, but also before WWI. But, firmly in the era of Jim Crow, and reservation orphanages, and the broad colonial period. That piece of gold has seen some strange days. But it makes those sweeping downstrokes, and hairline cross-strokes. When students see me write physics equations with it on a projection document camera system, they are mystified by both the equations *and* their physical beauty.

  2. Actually, none.

    I can’t track my family further back than my maternal grandparents. I know some of the names of my grandfather’s siblings and where both he and his wife were born (look, she died when my mother was five; I really don’t think of her as a grandmother). But that’s it. (We did use to have a family Bible, but one of my aunts “temporarily” sent it to someone in Ohio for some damn fool reason, and we never got it back. Again, no idea who she sent it to.)

    With my father, I know nothing except for something he told me once about his father. I can’t confirm it because I don’t know his parents’ names. He had a lot of brothers and sisters as well. I don’t know any of their names, either, or if any of them are alive.

    So I always get baffled by the idea of owning tons of stuff that has been passed down for centuries or of having family customs that stretch back generations. I’m familiar with the concept; it shows up a lot in fiction. But it’s not something I’ve ever experienced.

    This used to frustrate the hell out of my teachers, too, because sometimes they would ask their classes to write about family customs, and we didn’t have any that went back any further than my mother or my aunt (NOT the fool who gave away the family Bible, another one). At first I tried telling my teachers this, but they never believed me. Eventually, I settled for making shit up. That way I didn’t get detention for telling the truth.

    • Good for you. How could they prove it otherwise?

      In my mother’s family, they passed down stuff because they used it all. But my grandmother saved it all as mementos.

  3. Unfortunately very few heirlooms made it down to me except from the very recent generations aside from photographs and a small number of items of correspondence. I feel quite deprived given that I’ve done so much research into the 1700s and 1800s members of my various families, and I’d have a good understanding of what those heirlooms were.

    There’s one nice exception to that lack — an ox shoe. It turned up in the Mother Lode dirt at my great great grandparents’ ranch. My great great grandfather John Branson was a ’49er. He came across the Great Basin in a Conestoga wagon pulled by oxen. He then continued to use that wagon, with teams of oxen, for the rest of his working life. Even though he made a successful living as a placer gold-miner for nearly 20 years, he made even more money hauling cargo.

    Many people today might not even recognize an ox shoe as anything other than a weird-looking horseshoe. They know in a vague way that wagons had to be used before the invention of automobiles and trucks to move things from the docks and the railroad shipping depots, but I think nearly everyone pictures horses pulling those wagons. Horses are handy, but oxen were preferred for heavy loads, particularly over long distances.

    I’d like to think the shoe I have dates back to the 1849 journey. Alas, that’s extremely unlikely. It’s probably one that got lost in the early 20th Century when my great uncle — also named John Branson — used that same wagon for short-distance hauling in Mariposa County. They built wagons to last, back then.

    • I did not know about ox shoes. That is pretty cool about your family.

      If someone saved it, maybe it does date back to that trip. No, I see it was in the dirt. Even so.

      • It was in the dirt. A lost one. The thing about ox shoes is, they were practical items and no one was likely to keep one as a souvenir, no matter how much that might make sense from the perspective of 150 years later.

        Ox shoes are really weird. Cloven feet, so each foot had two shoes. The one I have appears to be a left one.

        I’ve heard some ox teams included intact males. That sounds impossible, but apparently it was done. The bulls had the testosterone for really thick muscles and some uses of oxen required awesome amounts of sheer strength.

        • Yeah, that makes sense–like arrowheads left over, etc. (I have an in-law who used to traverse the Kentucky forests hunting arrowheads, and made many nifty finds.)

  4. Some great stories here.
    Because of my father’s military career any “heirlooms”–and I doubt there were any as both sides were dirt poor–were left to others, but I love hearing and reading about those connections to the past.

  5. when my grandparents left China, they left nearly everything behind. Only a very few heirlooms exist — there is a genealogy, for instance (hand-calligraphed on rice paper) of the male descent for about 14 generations. My (male) cousin has it.
    I recently got several pieces of jade. They are small — small enough to hide in your bra. My grandmother brought them out of China, and my mother kept them wrapped in pieces of Kleenex for essentially my entire lifetime. When she had to move into assisted living, she passed them to me. I took them to Laurie Edison, who is designing a series of necklaces with them. I have one piece now — it is jade leaves and a jade butterfly with natural pearls, probably pried off of some larger ornament. It is the first time these stones have been worn in probably a hundred years.

  6. Your sister’s wreath for her hair looks like what I wore at my wedding.

    My mom used to curl her hair with rags. I did too, now and then, and my daughter’s done it too. Your photos are wonderful–dating so far back!

    I don’t have an heirloom to tell about, but a story: In my paternal grandmother’s house, at the landing on the stairs, was a giant polished shell, with designs incised on the mother-of-pearl on the inside. The story goes that when the banks failed and everyone was trying to get their money out, someone–not sure if it was my grandmother’s father or my grandfather’s father, but probably the former–was storming the bank with everyone else, and when there was no money to be had, he came out with that shell, instead.

    (I should check with my sister to see if I’ve got the details right…)

  7. When I was clearing out my mother’s house, I found a largish box full of crocheted lace that I think must have been made by my grandmother and great-grand. Part of it is everyday (for pre-World War I) stuff, including an almost finished camisole meant to go under a corset (it is so petite that it could only have been for my four-foot-ten gran, as everyone else in the family was at least a couple of inches taller). Part of it seems to be a stitch dictionary, as there are one-off samples only a few inches long of wildly different things. The box also yielded some of the metal and bone (!) hooks used to make everything and even part of a cone of thread. I don’t quite know what to do with it, but am looking into textile museums to leave it to.

    • Oh, that is a terrific idea. I’ll bet textile museums would be lucky to get them.

      Yeah, I have my great-grandmother’s aprons she made for her trousseau. Excellent linen, meant to last. But the aprons are for a nineteen inch waist. I wore a couple of them to Mythopoeic Society events many moons (and inches) ago.

  8. I was just trying to curl my hair with rags last night. I have way slippery hair and essentially ended up bobby-pinning lumps of hair and rags together, rather than being able to tie off the rags the way the nice lady in the video did it. It kind of worked.

    My great-grandfather (b. 1866) used to curl his mustache (dark red, like his hair) with a little curling iron, I am told. I would not be surprised if it looked something like the one you have.

    • Whatever works! (I found that it did get easier over time, but my first few attempts were painstaking and very uneven.)

  9. I just found something in my parents’ kitchen past night that I have no clue about. It’s plastic, and looks like sets of increasingly larger bear traps. It’s not vintage, but it’s odd. So must find out what it is before it vanishes into history!