Decorative hair combs date to the earliest of times and were created from all sorts of materials. For instance, ancient combs were made from wood, bones, ivory, feathers, and other natural type materials. Sometimes they were “studded” with gems or painted with designs. These early decorative hair combs were also often flat in construction but over time they evolved into curved pieces to better fit the shape of woman’s head.
Around the early 1800s decorative hair combs began to be fashionable and there began to be numerous patents for them. Combs at this time were created from a variety of materials such as horns, shells, ivory, bones, wood, metal, tortoiseshell, and the hoofs of cattle or horses. Because of the popularity of hair combs between the 1890s and early 1900s materials used for to create them increased so that not only were the items already mentioned used to produce them but also “precious metals, pewter, aluminum, brass, … amber, coral, [and] jet.”
At the beginning of the 1800s decorative hair combs were usually handcrafted and inexpensive. However, as the century progressed, they began to be produced by small local manufacturers so that by the mid-century they were being produced in great numbers with mechanical die-stamping. The mechanical produced combs were then polished and finished with tortoiseshell patterns by the families of comb makers who worked in the cottage industry in the U.K.
Early nineteenth century designs for hair combs were not necessarily creative works of art. Pieces were often plain and narrow on top. However, as the century advanced, decorative hair combs became fancier and costlier. For example, according to the Encyclopedia of Hair by Victoria Sherrow:
“[Victorian and Edwardian] glassmaker René Lalique … made combs with Art Nouveau designs, including his famous dragonfly. Lalique employed unexpected materials, including opals and Baroque pearls, in new ways and he combined them with enamel, glass, and semiprecious stones.”
Although Lalique may have used a variety of materials in his decorative hair combs, tortoiseshell was a common material used. In fact, Godey’s Lady Book, an American women’s magazine published from 1830 to 1878, reported in December 1840 on the popularity of tortoiseshell combs:
“This is an old fashion [style] revived, and one that promises to become very general. We mean the combs with very high galleries or heads, which were so much in vogue in the time our grandmammas; they are of the same form as those employed at the court of Napoleon in its early days; they were then ornamented with precious stones of all kinds; those now coming into use are set with gold, cameos, or coral, and the last appears decidedly most in favor.”
Tortoiseshell remained a popular material until it began to be scarce. It was then replaced by gutta-percha, a sap obtained primarily from the Palaquium gutta trees found in Malaysia and scientifically classified in 1843. A year or so after Madame Tussaud’s death in April 1850, gutta-percha began being imported to Britain where it was used for many domestic and industrial purposes. Among the things it was used for was insulation for underwater telegraph cables and furniture made by the Gutta Percha Company, which resulted in gutta percha becoming a household word.
Although tortoiseshell and gutta-percha were popular materials, the most plentiful and popular material for decorative hair combs throughout much of the nineteenth century was probably horn. That was partly because it was easy to find and cheaper than tortoiseshell. Moreover, horn was extremely flexible. It acted almost like plastic in that it could be easily cut, bent, twisted, stretched, molded, pierced, or carved. Horn also easily lent itself to imitating the popular tortoiseshell pattern.
Decorative hair combs had become extremely popular with women by the Victorian Era. That was because combs were one of the key items used to adorn women’s coiffures and help them achieve the fashionable upswept hairdos popular during Victorian times. Of the decorative hair comb’s importance Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine reported in their November 1862 edition:
“Plaits and puffs are also arranged with these combs, which are made in endless variety, and give an air of piquant coquetterie to the head. When worn in the daytime, these small combs are made of light tortoise shell, either with a row of small pearls, also in shell, very closely ranged together, or cut out in clubs, points, or hearts. For the evening they are made of dead gold, either quite plain or studded with pearl, coral, steel, gilt, or even precious stones, according to the toilet with which they are worn. Sometimes the Greek design is worked in black enamel upon the dead gold. The comb at the back should correspond exactly with the side combs. Ivory combs are still worn, also shell with ivory ball tops. Among the prettiest shell are some with ball tops studded with tiny gilt stars.”
As mentioned, tortoiseshell or the tortoiseshell pattern was extremely popular in the 1800s. One early decorative hair comb had a combination of metal and tortoiseshell and is shown below. It comes from France and dates to around 1800. This eight-toothed light tortoiseshell comb has a hinged top with a rectangular shape of gilded curved metal that sports a black enamel design of squares and circles and measures about 2 5/8 inches by 4 1/8 inches by 1 5/8 inches.
Another decorative hair comb preserved and available to view today through the Museum of Fine Arts Boston also comes from nineteenth century France. It is a large 21-toothed dark tortoiseshell comb that has elaborate carved openwork and is shown below. Also note that in the center of this comb a flower basket is flanked by peonies.
A third nineteenth-century tortoiseshell comb comes from the United States and has nine teeth to securely hold it in place. It has high carved open work in the form of a spray of flowers centered around a rose tied up with a bow. Alternating around the border is a trefoil and wheel design.
Another nine-toothed decorative hair comb from the nineteenth century thought to be from France is created from silver. The top edge looks like a crown with its seven distinct knobs. It is ornamented with an engraved design of leaves and flowers and has a flower-filled basket in the center.
One popular nineteenth-century hair comb sold in the 1850s was made from vulcanite rubber, a process devised by American self-taught chemist Charles Goodyear that involved sulfur being applied to natural rubber. Because vulcanite, or ebonite as it was sometimes called, was cheaper than other materials, such as tortoiseshell or jet, by the 1850s American jewelers and accessory makers began using it as a substitute. An example of a vulcanite rubber hair comb is shown below. Atop the six-tooth decorative hair comb is a seven-link chain and on the back it states: “I.R. Comb Co Goodyear 1851.”
Another popular comb that appeared in the 1870s was the large Spanish mantilla comb. It resembled the traditional type of ornament worn by Spanish women that consisted of a convex body and a set of teeth that affixed to a women’s hair when worn in a bun. This comb first became popular in France because of the opera Carmen that was a four-act opera composed by Frenchman George Bizet based on a novella of the same title by Propser Mérimée, a French writer in the movement of Romanticism and one of the pioneers of the novella.
Carmen was first performed on 3 March 1875 by the Opéra-Comique in Paris. It starred Célestine Galli-Marié as Carmen and Paul Lhérie as Don José. Audiences were stunned that it broke convention with its violence, impulsiveness, and sexuality. It was like riding an emotional roller coaster and therefore shocked audiences. However, by 1884 it was pronounced an international success and became all the rage among Victorians.
As mentioned, ivory was also used to produce decorative hair combs. One such comb comes from France and dates to 1881, the same year that Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, published his novel the Prince and the Pauper. The ivory comb shown below is a carved wedding comb with the central medallion flanked by phoenixes. Also, across the top are balls that gradually increasing in size from the outside to the center. This small comb measures 3 1/2 inches x 2 11/16 inches by 11/16 inches.
One particularly beautiful western European decorative hair comb that comes from the nineteenth century is shown below. It has a curved design with pearl beads and intermixed with curved gilded metal. The seven-toothed comb is thought to be tortoiseshell and measures 4 1/8 inches by 5 5/8 inches by 1 5/16 inches.
Another comb that also has pearls is rather interesting because it has two pearls on either side at each end attached to the comb by gold cotton string. This comb dates between 1840 and 1860 and is from France. The top is gold-colored metal with synthetic pearls attached and below is a nine-toothed tortoiseshell colored comb.
As mentioned, sometimes decorative hair combs came in pairs. This was the case with this pair of short dark tortoiseshell combs shown below. Both combs are curved, and each has numerous fine teeth to help hold the comb in place. Atop each comb is a narrow band of carved open work with eight pointed niches and with each niche showing beneath it a spray of flowers or leaves.
The popularity of decorative hair combs helped to boost production in certain towns and that greatly benefited their economies. In fact, it was reported that in Northborough, Massachusetts, “comb making was the largest industry during the mid-1800s.” It was also reported in Northborough:
“Fancy combs paid large profits so long as the fashion lasted, but were liable to become dead property almost any day when a more attractive design appeared. Consequently, small or family comb shops came into operation wherever suitable shops and dwellings could be found.”
Unfortunately, around the early 1870s, women’s decorative hair combs began to fall out of fashion. This hurt the economies in some cities that manufactured them. Moreover, from this period forward decorative hair combs fluctuated in popularity as they were dependent upon the fads of the ever fickle and constantly changing hair fashions. However, in 1879 when decorative hair combs came back in vogue for a brief time it resulted in the following remarks:
“The comb which is most fashionable just now is what is called a barrette, with the back almost straight, about three inches high, either plain or figured, in tortoise-shell, pure gold or gold and coral. Anyhow we should recommend it to be worn of real tortoise-shell or gold, for in such things imitations are unbearable.”
The Kansas City Star also provided a report on decorative hair combs in 1879 with their report seeming to harken back to the early days of the 1800s when the combs first became popular:
“The revival of the pompadour style in hair dressing is followed by an array of ornamental combs of beauty and variety, as well as others of direct utility. The round horn comb, which played a prominent part in the hair dressing of young girls forty years ago returns with the same grooved rim, but with the teeth decidedly curved to accommodate the very popular roll from the forehead. … Side combs, which have been in evidence in a half apologetic way as if they were an uncertain venture, for the past few years, have gained a comfortable degree of self-possession and consequent graceful effect. They have taken on quite a number of extra teeth, and indulge in carved and even jeweled bands. … the Louis XIV and the Empire ornamental back combs in the most translucent tortoise shell … [are] the finest in the world. The curves of the one and the severely plain lines of the other are followed by a row of milk white pearls set in the shell, which is in itself too rarely rich and beautiful to allow any further ornamentation. Tortoise shell, which easily leads in elegant combs, gives the most magnificent finish to full dress, and at all times imparts to its wearer and increased air of refined dignity.”
The nineteenth century (and in particular the Victorian Era) involved borrowing from other periods so that what was once trendy was often back in fashion. Moreover, decorative hair combs of the nineteenth century ranged from Gothic and Renaissance styles to Napoleonic and Oriental designs. Materials used to create combs also changed as quickly as the styles and what was popular one day was out of fashion the next. Perhaps that is why in 1897 The Kansas City Star mentioned that Empress Josephine’s dressmaker once remarked, “There is nothing new in the world but that which has grown old enough.”
-  V. Sherrow, Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. 92.
-  Ibid., p. 93.
-  Godey’s Lady’s Book and Ladies American Magazine, v. 21, Jul-Dec, (Philadelphia 1840), p. 284.
-  Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, v. 65, (Philadelphia, 1879), p. 516.
-  V. Sherrow. 2006, p. 92.
-  J. C. Kent, Northborough History (Newton: Garden City Press, 1921), p. 167.
-  Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, v. 98 (Philadelphia 1879), p. 382.
-  The Kansas City Star, “With the Pompadour Roll,” May 16, 1897, p. 10.
-  Ibid.