For that Bad Hair Day – the Wig Curler

Pipe-Clay Wig Curler from about 1750. W.B. and two dots at one end.

Not all finds recorded by detectorists are metallic. Ace detectorist Gordon Heritage made the ‘exciting’ wig curler discovery ‘eyes only’ in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

The complete post-medieval wig curler is rather unimpressive but was perhaps the essential (albeit low tech) accessory of the day and the predecessor of the modern heater hair roller.

The wig, a fashionable means of adornment during the 17th and 18th centuries, was worn by both men and women and a necessary accompaniment would have been some means of setting the curls – the wig curler. Ladies reading this will need few instructions on how to use it for when she puts in her modern hair rollers she is following the same practice. The curler was first rolled in damp paper and then the hair was wrapped around it. To set the curls, the wig was then baked in an oven. Voila! Ursula Priestly in her book Shops and Shopkeepers in Norwich states:

By the end of the 17th century wigs were considered indispensable and most barbers kept a stock of hair – by this time a scarce and expensive commodity. In 1700 early wigs were severely crimped and inducing the hair to curl must have been a time-consuming occupation for all concerned with the trade. In order to achieve a semi-permanent kink in preparation for wig-making, the locks were wound on to small pipe-clay curlers – known as ‘pipes’ – secured with rags, boiled, and finally baked in the oven. Ursula Priestly

The pipe-clay curler found by Gordon is 55mm long but the cylinder would vary in size according to the size of the curls required. Notice how it is rounded at both ends and thinner in the middle, so helping retain the hair.

Samual Pepys courtesy Bridgeman Art Gallery.

The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the day in 1665 he shaved his head and purchased a periwig but then decided not to wear it out of fear of infection due to the Great Plague. He believed that many would share his fear. According to Edward Sammes’ book …

Pepys wrote that he had “paid three pounds for a periwig” and that on going to church “it did not prove so strange as I thought it would”. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century a great variety of wigs of different fashions were on sale; full bobs, miniature bobs, naturels, Grecian flys and curly rays. Full play upon the extravagances of this fashion was made by caricaturists of the day. The fashion began to wane during the reign of George III except amongst professional men on the judicial bench, clergy and the Speaker of the House of Commons. Church Terrace Reports No. 8 – Wig Curlers by Edward Sammes

In my research for this blog I came across a Facebook site by the ‘Thames Mudlark’ And what a find! You must take a look at his size, which is a cornucopia of wonderful and fascinating articles. Generally, he says:

“The idea … is to show the wonderful things that you can find on the Thames foreshore and also to identify the objects and give good background information. Pretty pictures are great but the backstory is important as it will help others to identify objects and expand knowledge.”

And there is a section on the ‘wonderful wig curler’ he found. Take a look at the article if you can. This is just a taster. There is a lot more information and many pictures on his site.

© Thames Mudlark.  This is a rare find. Normally if you do find this product its broken with only a half remaining. I was extremely lucky to find one just sitting on the foreshore, complete with WB maker marks on both ends …  Possibly made by William Burstow, Blackheath Hill, Greenwich.

The use of incuse marking on pipe bases is, according to Edward Sammes, limited to the seventeenth century … the majority of wig curlers found in or near London bear the initials W.B.

From the UKDFD and found at Rotherhithe on the Thames foreshore. This one has a crown over the initials WB.
Mick Hopton of the Northern Relic Hunters forum tells me that his son found half a curler in Spennymoor. He knew what it was and it is now on display in his cabinet. Good one! And thanks for sharing.
© Mike Willet

You can see the comment (below) left on the blog by Mike. What a fine example. I am so pleased that my blog helped him to identify this item.

I have always wondered what it was. Here are my pics.. My stamps on the end are not legible but at least it is complete. Thanks again, Mike.



“Being an archaeologist seems to me to be a lot like a detective working in a foreign language on a different planet, trying to solve a mass murder with one thigh bone.” Al Murray 


17 thoughts on “For that Bad Hair Day – the Wig Curler”

  1. I don’t know what’s more impressive John, the fact that an intact piece was found or the fact that they used to stamp those things back then.

    Pretty impressive eyeball find if you ask me.

  2. Hi John, I can’t thank you enough for this post sincerely!
    I started detecting about eight years ago.
    Before this I was always picking up pieces of clay pipe or anything that looked interesting in any way shape or form.
    Can hardly believe I have found one myself! Always wondered what it was and now I know!
    Will be happy to send pics. Thanks again.

  3. Wig: three little letters, so much to learn! So old an accessory! Pepys fear of the plague had me wondering, but it was because they cut the hair off plague victims! He stumped up for his fright the equivalent of 450 quid in today’s dosh, apparently… Never seen a wig curler before… very interesting! Thank you John!

  4. I love your blog John, been following for a while. I run the London Mudlark Facebook page and wig curlers are regularly posted there (I have number myself). All sorts of other things too, I think you will enjoy it.

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