Today, I am looking at hair combs. Not combs used to get tangles out of hair but combs with longer teeth that were used to ensure a firm hold of an uplifted hairstyle. Ornamental combs became popular after 1795  (note that many different cultures have historically used ornamental combs but I am focusing here on European and American society).  At this time, they were fairly plain and made of silver, brass or steel. Within 20 years, however, they had become more elaborate and horn, ivory and tortoiseshell began to be used for the teeth part of the comb. Generally, combs were straight and did not yet curve slightly to cup the head.

Hinges began to be used in the early 18th century, allowing more flexibility in how to use the comb and resulting in a need for fewer teeth. Sometimes, the metal framed headings or mounts were made to be interchangeable.

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Victorian turquoise and gold hair comb

In France, tiara combs became popular, influenced by the style of Empress Josephine. She also promoted combs which had headings topped by a row of spherical ornaments which stood proud when the comb was placed in the hair, the peigne-Josephine comb. The comb part of these tiaras were made of gold, gilt, silver, pinchbeck or silver and comprised up to twelve straight teeth or pins.

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Back hinge of turquoise hair comb

Victorian women loved the hair comb, wearing their hair in buns or topknots with ringlets and this love affair was to continue into the Art Nouveau period (1890 – 1910). Jewellers like Fontana Frėres, Henri Vever, René Lalique, Tiffany and Fabergé worked with tortoiseshell, horn, gold, pearls, diamonds, moonstones and turquoise to create stunning hair combs. The Edwardians reverted to the use of tiara combs, ornamented with diamonds and pearls. Hairstyles changed after WWII, with the ‘bob’ introduced in 1920. The shorter hair styles required different accessories – slides, barrettes, headbands. Hat and clouche pins took over.

One material led to the mass production of combs from around 1880 – celluloid plastic. Despite the fact that it was highly flammable, celluloid allowed for moulding or die stamping of combs in large quantities. Imitation tortoiseshell was created by hand painting celluloid. Cellulose acetate, which was non-flammable, eventually replaced celluloid in the mid 1920s. Casein, composed of milk by-products, was used for combs between the wars, and bakelite, patented in 1907, was also used up until WWII.

I haven’t even touched on hair pins, some of which were used alongside hair combs. Generally, ornamental hair pins have two long prongs or teeth and are not hinged. An excellent reference book on hair combs is ‘The Comb: Its History and Development‘ by Jen Cruse.