Figure 1.-The amount of work involved in curling a boy's hair could be considerable. Look at all the ringlets on this boy. He would have have his hair curled daily or it could be a mess. It the curling was done by his mother it meant that they would spend an hour or more together every evening while she worked on his hair.

Boys' Ringlet Curls: The Experience

A few writers recall the experience of wearing ringlet curls. Unfortunately I have only a few accounts of the experience. A full assessment requires many more personal accounts to fully assess the experience.

Boy's Reaction

Many recall with distaste the process of having their hair curled. Others recall how they liked the attention as younger boys, but began to have second thoughts as they got older. This was especially true if they were teased by other boys. One has to wonder how an active boy could stand all the bother of having his hair curled. I can recall as a boy, I didn't even like to take time to comb my hair. All the time devoting to hair curling must have really been an irritation.


The process of curling hair was quite tedious. A mother or servant if they were clever may have tried to use games and stories to get a young child to remain still for the process. Probably the results varied greatly from family to family. Certainly the adults involved would have had varying levels of patience. The level of physical inactivity was almost certainly very tedious. The real chore for the adults may have been finding ways to restrict the child's activity. Curls are fragile, movement, moisture and rubbing can all destoy hous of work. So the child would have to have enlisted in support of maintaining the curls to some minimal level.

Reaction of Other Boys

One of the factors which undoubtedly affected a boy's reaction to having his hair curled was the reaction of the other boys who didn't have their hair curled. Having to face other boys with more boyish hair cuts--must have been even worse than the tedious, time consuming process itself. Peergroup pressure is enormous as the child moves toward adolescence. Perhaops npt quite as much as today, but it was still a powerful force even in the 19th Century.

Many of these boys were sheltered in affluent homes, but some less affluent boys wore ringlet curls. Thomas Wolfe in the strongly autobiographical Look Homeward Angel writes, "Eliza had allowed his hair to grow long; she wound it around her finger every morning into fat Fauntleroy curls: the agony and humiliation it caused him was horrible, but she was unable or unwilling to understand it, and mouth-pursingly thoughtful and stubborn to all solicitation to cut it."

Relationship with Mother

One factor which is difficult to assess at this time is the personal interaction between mother and child during the hair curling. The process may have helped promote a bonding process. While in some households the curling was done by a nanny or servant. It was not, however, just rich boys who had their hair curled. Many middle class boys also had their hair curled. One HBC contributor writes, for example, "My father in law is pictured in curls when he appeared to be about 4, with a little sword. This would have been about 1906. They certainly were not wealthy."

Boys in middle class families would have generally had their hair curled by their mother. In spite of what one might have assumed or read--it could have been a very pleasant experience for a small to have this kind of attention. Of course this depended greatly on the mother. There must have been a lot more conversation between mother and son than between father and son. A full examination of the curling process will have to take into account this time spent together. Certainly smaller boys while annoyed by the tedious process, may have enjoyed the attention the process afforded. Of course, their enjoyment of the attention seems to have changed as they got older. Elizabeth Barrett Browing son Pen Browning, for example, as a small boy enjoyed the attentiom and even the frilly clothes his mother selected. As an older boy of 10 and 11, however, he was pleading with his father to allow him to have his curls cut and to wear more boyish clothes.

Figure 2.--Only limited information is available on what boys thought of having their hair curled. Younger boys may have welcomed their mother's attention. Older boys, however, often began to object.

Available evidence suggests that the time devoted to hair curling in the evening help to build a very close bond between mother and son. This was only true of course for the boys whose hair was actually curled by their mothers. One biography of Mrs. Burnett's life reports that the 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. I don't know what they thought about having their curled, but it must have been enjoyable to have such an imaginative mother to make the process enjoyable.

Relationship with Servants

The time and effort involved in curling a boy's hair meant that it was most common in boys from affluent families. It almost was an advertisment along with a frilly Fauntleroy suit or other expensive clothes that the family could afford expensive luxuries. This was of course one reason it was coppied by middle class families.

The mother in wealthy families was not usually the person who occupied herself with the time consuming processing of curling hair. This of course meant that the bonding did not occur as described above. Biographies of the 19th Century show that children in many cases not close4 to their parents and were often raised by servants.

One HBC contributor suggest that the process itself of curling hair enduced a bonding. Many wealthy chioldren were more attached to nannies than parents. Of course this depended greatly on the individuals involved. Many boys did become close to their nannies. For such boys, if their hair was curled, the curling process could help build the relationship.

Not all nannies and other servants were such sympathetic figures. Less well documented in biographies are nannies and servants which could be cruel. Even very important little boys could be treated badly. George VI, for example, was terribly treated by his nannie. More common was nannies and servants that were at best indifferent. They would be given orders by their employers and had to comply. As the children had little contact with their parents, the entreties that middle class parents would hear, often did not reach wealthy parents or at least they could be more easily ignored.

Personal Accounts

The Burnett household: The 1880s

Christopher Wagner

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Created: May 15, 1998
Last edited: August 20, 1999