Boys' Ringlet Curls: The Process

Boys wearing curls had to endure having their hair done up just like their sisters. Boys were subjected to the same torment of curls and hairbows that their sisters endured. For most of the boys--but not all--it mercifully lasted only a brief few years. For their sisters it lasted through their entire girlhood.


An American reader writes, "Many old photographs show boys with spiral ringlet curls. I have been curious as to how they were made. I read that rags and paper were often used but I can't visualize the actual process. It hardly seems that such materials could produce the uniformity of the curl diameters. Do you have any information on this?" We have collected some information. Unfortunately we have nevver seen axtual photographs of a boy having his hair done in ringlets. We welcome contributions from readers who can explain the process in more detail.


There were various ways of curling hair, bob curlers and rags were the most common:

Bob curlers

The process of curling hair could be quite tedious, especially because it had to be done nightly if the child was to be kept presentable. The author of a popular etiquette book, Miss Leslie's Behavior Book, suggested, "They pay dearly for the glory of appearing in ringlets during the day if they are made to pass their nights laying upon a mass of hard rough bob (curlers)".

Figure 1.--Scandidavian boys also wore long ringlet curls at the turn of the century. This Swedish boy is Dag Hammarskjold, the future United Nations Secretary General. Note the hair bow, a feature rarely seen on American boys.

Rag curlers

Most mothers elected a less uncomfortable process of curling hair. The process in America was generally referred to as using "rags". Some mothers used papers. Small strands of moistened hair were rolled onto the thin cloth strips (rags) or paper s. They were then knotted to the boy's crown. Thus the boys hair up in papers at night to make curls just like their sisters. It was at the time a long drawn out process which presumably must have been irritating for an acti ve boy with surely many more pressing ideas of how he could spend his time. In fact some accounts from the era note the boys complained more about having their hair done up in curlers each night more than the Fauntleroy suit they had to wear. One reader comments, however, "My sister had sausage curls when she was a young girl. My mother would make them by wrapping her wet hair up with rags at night. A process that was fairly quick and certaintly didn't cost any money." Many boys recall the process as they may have worn curls up until 6 or 7 years, in some cases longer. Unlike boys that had their curls cut at an early age, these boys remembered the process and expereince very well. Sammuel Morrison, the American historian, described the process of having his hair put into curls. He sys that he endured this until his curls were cut at 7 years of age. He estimates that about one boy in ten during the 1890s had their hair done in curls.

One granddaughter comments on the curls she saw in a photograh:

I recall seeing childhood pictures of my grandfather in sausage curls and starchy suits and besides thinking he was a girl, I kept thinking he looked awfully uncomfortable and self-conscious! Speaking from the middle-class American perspective, the formality of those hair styles seems as wholly inconsistent with today's decidedly informal approach to living as do the clothes. Plus, how long could a parent realistically expect a kid's hair to stay so carefully arranged? I don't know many adults who could keep all those curls and waves in place for very long!

Figure 2.--Some mothers cut their son's hair while he was still in dresses. Other mothers refused to cut their sons curls even several years after brreching.

Hair Care and Only Children

One should remember in the 19th Century, hot and even cold water were not nearly as available as now. Therefore hair was almost certainly not shampooed as often as it is now. I am not sure how frequently children's or especially boys hair was shampooed. Probably once a week for most boys. The level of work needed to maintain ringlet curls expalains why it was most common in affluent families that could afford nannies and servants. It is clear, however, that the fashion was not exclusivey reserved to wealthy families. Middle class boys also had their hair curled. It the days of large families, mothers who wanted to curl their son's hair might br disuaded from the curling if she had a large family. This must have been the case if the family sid not have sevants to assist in the process. Thus it is most likely that many of the boys who had their hair curls were only children or at least from small families.

Rag Curlers

Given the lack of electric appliances, and considering the risk of using heated tongs and irons, on small children, it seems that rag curls were the preferred method of curling a boys hair. Rags can produce a very tight curl. however, given the length of the hair in the pictures, wet or damp hair would have taken quite a while to dry.perhaps longer than overnight.

Actual Accounts

HBC is especially interested in collecting actual accounts, either boys'memories or contemporary adult accounts. Such accounts provide fascinating details about the processes involved an d what the boys and adults thought about ringlet curls.

"Nurse Stark was not actively unkind to us, indeed, I believe she had cheated herself into a belief that she was rather weak minded and indulgent than otherwise, but in this she was in error. I believe she was fond of us in a hard unyielding way, but she was sudden and impulsive in her movements, and never handled us without hurting us. There was a housemaid-- Jane Cotter-- who occasionally helped put to bed... And the manner in which these duties were to be divided became a matter of no light speculation to us as evening approached, for it was Nurse Starke's custom to pull the locks of hair out to their full length, and then roll them round a piece of paper, twisting the ends together when the curl had been rolled well home, whereas Jane Cotter first made the curl up flat with her fingers and then encased it gently in a triangular paper, which she pinched with the tongs. Jane Cotter's flat curls were pleasant to sleep upon, but Nurse Starke's corkscrews placed a comfortable night's rest out of the question. It is impossible to sleep in peace with a double row of balls, each as big as a chestnut, round your head. You can't move without giving four or five of them a wrench." [This account of a young boy was published in 1876, although HBC does not know how old he was when he wrote it.]


Some mothers and servants may have dreamed up ways of making the tedious process of hair curling less boring for their fiditing young charges. One biography of Mrs. Burnett's life reports that her Little Lord Fauntleroy story evolved from a "hair curling story". This meant that it was a story that the imaginative Mrs. Burnett concocted to amuse her young sons, Vivian and his brother, so they would sit still while having their hair curled. One must remember that children at the time had fewer amusements availavle to them. There was no television spewing out non-stop stories and cartoons. Thus young children, especuially before they could read well had to depend on their parents for stories. Even after they learned to read, children's books were much more limited than the case today. So the Burnett boys presumably looked to story time wity mother even it meant hair curling. Of course, not evry boy was lucky enough to have such a creative story teller for amother. And one wonders about the wealthier boys who may have had their hair done by sevants. Many of them may not have care givers that may have not had the ability or tyhe interest in telling stories. This of course is not to stay sevants never told stories. There are plenty of accounts of faithful retainers who would entertain their charges. In America, servants in the North were often imigrants. These were often stories of the "old days" or the old country, with colorful folk tales added such as Irish lepecauns. In the South servants were often blacks. I'm less sure about stories they would tell, but at least one writer, Joel Chandler Harris, wrote about stories that a former slave, Uncle Remus, would tell. The stories would turn into a Disney movie--The Song of the South. (The boy in the Uncle Remus stories was not having his hair curled, I mention this only as an example of how black servants might hace entertained their charges with stories.) I remember reading the Uncle Remus stories and the movie had a been impact on me as a boy.

The Experience

I don't know what the boys themselves thought about having their curled. Boys with imaginative mothers like Mrs. Burnett may have found it enjoyable to have such an imaginative mother to make the process enjoyavle. The experience may have helped build a close reationship between mother and son. In other instances it may have been a nightly test of wills between mothers and child.


Navigate Related HBC pages:
[Return to the Main hair page]
[Return to the Main curl page]
[Ringlet curls] [Bangs] [Long hair] [Ringlet curl experience] [Ringlet curls process]
[Headwear] [Collar bows]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Bibliographies] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: May 15, 1998
Last edited: 6:04 PM 9/13/2010