Greg’s dear mother, Leta Mae Davidson Moore, passed away in 1999. She was a generous, loving, kind hearted woman who never lost her child like sense of wonder for the world. When I married her son, I became the daughter she had always longed for, and we spent many happy hours together over the years, talking, shopping and simply spending time together. She loved being Mimi to her three grandchildren and my kids carry precious memories of her.
A few years after her death, Greg’s dad allowed me to bring home a set of old curling irons that belonged to Leta when she was a girl. Even though her hair appeared to easily arrange itself into natural curls, Leta must have used these irons often. She kept them into adulthood and although she stopped using them on her hair, she had the irons mounted on a bright pink backing board and framed. I am honored to be the keeper of these vintage curling irons.
Curling irons have been used for thousands of years, and not just by women. In Babylonia, Greece, and Egypt men used heated irons to curl their hair and beards. And women have depended on irons to keep up with fashion’s demand for curls for just as long.
In 1866 Hiram Maxim obtained the first patent for a curling iron. These tongs were heated in a fire or atop a stove and hair was wrapped around them, creating curls. By 1890 French inventors Maurice Lentheric and Marcel Grateau used hot-air drying and heated curling tongs to make deep, long-lasting Marcel waves.
Born in 1922, Leta was the youngest of four children and the only daughter in her family. I’m not sure when the curling irons were purchased, however I know Leta used them as a child and teenager. I can imagine her mother heating the irons on the stove and then carefully creating curls in her young daughter’s light brown hair.
From my research I’ve learned one had to be very careful indeed using these old curling irons. Unlike today’s electric curling irons, there was no way to regulate the temperature. The metal irons could become hot enough to scorch the hair, or worse, burn the hair badly enough that it broke off from the scalp. Leta’s mother must have taught her girl how to heat the irons to just the right temperature and how to test the warmth.
Photos of Leta Mae throughout her childhood and youth reveal her beauty and graceful poise, and also her carefully coiffed hair. She apparently mastered the feminine art of styling her hair.
By the time I knew this wonderful woman, she visited a salon weekly, and allowed her favorite stylist to cut and curl her hair. Leta was the only adult female I ever knew who depended on another to wash and style her hair for her. She had the charming custom, however, of adding small pink spongy curlers just around her hairline every night, before bed. To hold those curlers securely in place, she wrapped strips of toilet paper around her head.
My children still giggle over the memory of Mimi Leta in her robe, with her bedtime curlers and toilet paper wrapped head.
Keeper of the Curling Irons
I am happy to have Leta’s curling irons. I stood many times with my mother-in-law, in her bedroom, looking at her childhood keepsakes hanging on the wall. She spoke fondly of them and the long ago days when they were used.
I wish I had asked her more questions about them. Or that I had sat on the bed or the carpeted floor and asked her to tell me stories of her childhood. I heard a few. But now, with her gone almost 20 years, I’d love to hear more, know more.
I think of Leta every time I look at these vintage irons, and I miss her. I hope she knows how precious they are to me. My own daughters have a bit more wave to their hair than I do, and they have certainly spent time before a mirror, coaxing their long hair into curls. Someday I will pass Leta’s curling irons on to her granddaughters, perhaps breaking the set apart and giving one to each girl! I think Mimi Leta will smile about that, and reach up to pat her shining curls into place.