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My mother's family's original early 1900s curling tongs remained in the family, so that I have been able to photograph them.
These old curling tongs were all metal with two prongs. One prong was a solid cylinder and the other was an open shell such that the two fitted together when the tongs were closed.
The tongs had to be heated by any method available - in a gas ring or on the hob of a kitchen range. Being metal, they could get very hot and there was a skill to lifting them away from the heat at a suitable temperature. All too often, this temperature was misjudged: too cool a tong and the hair didn't curl and too hot a tong burnt the hair. Burnt hair could not be unburnt and had to grow out, so it was a risky business to use curling tongs. There was no way that they could be thermostatically controlled.
These curling tongs could be used in two main ways.
To make a tight curl or ringlet, the end of a length of hair was gripped between the prongs of the hot tongs. Then then the tongs were rotated over and over so that the hair wound round them. After a few seconds, the tongs were opened and hey presto!
To make home-made Marcel Waves, hair was pinched into waves using fingers and a comb and the peak of each wave was crimped between the prongs of the hot tongs. This set the peaks and hence also set the waves.