Garbology and Curling Tools

I understand that all the stroppy people read The Guardian. I was once a regular subscriber, but gave it up because I became weary of reading about single-parent families, third world issues and life-style preferences. In my local Waitrose they have several national newspapers, including the The Guardian and the Daily Mail, all available for customers to read whilst quaffing their Americano or Skinny Latte. With super owners and a reading list of such standards ?? it was no surprise when such an enlightened establishment raced away with the local ‘Supermarket of the Year’ title! But I digress.

It was a couple of years ago, when resigned to looking through the job pages of that aforementioned newspaper that I came across what must be one of the quirkiest occupations ever devised. There, stuck between an advert for a ‘Nappy Outreach Officer’ and a ‘Condom Distributions Schemes Co-ordinator,’ was one for a ‘Garbology Officer.’ You couldn’t make it up – and I assure the sceptics amongst you that I am not! Please trust me; I used to work in the public sector as a ‘Knowledge Navigator’ (Teacher).

The word ‘Garbology’ is a portmanteau word; a hybrid made up of ‘garbage’ and ‘archaeology’ and the creation of this new post was a joint initiative between the Archaeological and Waste Management Services of Suffolk County Council. They thought it a great opportunity to start looking at archaeology and at the same time deliver an environmental message. A Garbology Officer’s duty includes using rubbish from recent times as a learning resource in schools and also working with older people ‘using retrieved objects as a focus for reminiscence’.

Where there’s muck there’s lessons to be learned. So says Suffolk county council, which has advertised for a garbology officer to teach pupils the value of old rubbish.

It’s a dirty job, but someone will be paid up to £23,313 a year to do it. Council officials insist that the new post – which will run for a year, funded by money from the Heritage Lottery Fund – is a worthwhile addition to their waste management and archaeology team.

Gruniad 2004

As you can imagine, this ‘exciting new initiative’ had a controversial start witer of unhelpful tabloid headlines such as “Rubbish! Council is spending £30,000 on a ‘Garbologist’ and reminders from some hacks that ‘those winos you thought you saw sifting through skips and rubbish bins were not to be pitied; they were not tramps at all, but Garbology Officers on a mission!’

So, picking up on the phrases ‘retrieved objects’ and a ‘focus for reminiscence,’ the idea for a blogpost was born. So, I now shed my mantle of metal detectorist and write as a Garbology Officer. And the reasons are clear. Apart from the kudos of (at long last) having an ‘ology’ to my name, I take the opportunity to discuss the bits and pieces I have found, not with a metal detector, but by chance whilst browsing in the snoopers’ paradise that is the bric-a-brac stall in my local market, Grandma’s drawers, the attic and the car boot sale. Detectorists often recover just a piece of the artefact and wonder what on earth it can be. I have also chosen to show this item because of associations and the memories it may evoke of bygone days; something I imagine the Garbologist might do when talking to the likes of this old duffer, one of the old folk . . .

Vintage Curling Tongs

When I showed this artefact to an auctioneer friend of mine, he took a cursory look and cheekily said that I would never find a use for them. He was right. The only parts of me that have ever been curled are my toes … and perhaps my lips on the odd occasion! However, In the past, men and women straightened and curled their hair using tongs heated in the fire.

Curling Tongs

These tongs were used before the widespread use of electricity and typical of the type used to curl hair and wigs. They would have been heated by placing them in a fire or perhaps a pot of boiling water. If you look carefully, you will see the singed string wound around the handle for more comfortable use. Some examples had wooden handles. With no control of the heat of the iron there must have been many cases of singed hair, not to mention burnt fingers and scalps!

Handles detail showing remains of scorched string originally used to protect the user’s hands

The Wig Curler

Not all finds recorded by detectorists are metallic. Below I show two examples of a wig curler I have borrowed from the UKDFD database. Made of clay, the curler was heated as one would curling tongs, tapered toward the centre to retain the best possible curl. The post-medieval wig curlers shown are complete, rather unimpressive but perhaps 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 century, 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!

The pipe-clay curlers shown here are about 55mm long. The cylinder would vary in size according to the size of the curls required. Notice how they’re rounded at both ends and thinner in the middle, so helping retain the hair. A fascinating find. Finds 24658 [bottom] and 4749 courtesy of UKDFD

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 – ‘Shops and Shopkeepers in Norwich’

Dyson has improved everything from the vacuum to the hand dryer but are his new hair curlers really worth £450? 

5 thoughts on “Garbology and Curling Tools

  1. I don’t think that any of these skills were passed on. Most of his descendants were printers in Fleet Street. I could pull a rabbit or two out of my hat. I am told that at a distance they look like hares.

    Liked by 1 person

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