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.
I 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.
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?