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Pipe cleaners are well-known these days for craft work. The real pipe cleaners, though, the ones that were sold by tobacconists for cleaning pipes, were of a non-descript pale colour and were longer. They were designed to poke through a pipe, brushing out the stale tobacco and tar and to be flexible to reach round the bends in the pipe.
These pipe cleaners worked well as hair curlers because the outer surface was soft and fleecy, whereas the wire inside was flexible yet stayed put however it was bent.
To make a curl, hair was wound round a pipe cleaner which was then wound back on itself to hold the curler in place. The resulting curler was smaller than the metal types, but still lumpy to sleep on.
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My mother changed from using metal curlers to using pipe cleaners sometime in the 1950s.
Pipe cleaners could only be bought at tobacconists, and she was a fairly frequent customer. This suggests that pipe cleaners did not last long when repeatedly twisted and untwisted for use as curlers. So perhaps it was economy that kept my mother using metal curlers for so long.