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Collecting Combs As Decorations For The Hair

Author: Mary Bachman
Combs are a universal item and can be found in all parts of the world, each having developed their own particular style and use of materials. Often the material used is one found only in that particular locality. In China for instance, the Kingfisher bird had beautiful turquoise to blue feathers. They were incorporated into the designs and used to the point of the birds extinction. In Africa, woods of a particular region were used which help to identify where the comb was made. As one collects combs they become familiar with different materials, designs, trademarks, etc. that help to identify the combs' origin.

There isn't a lot written about combs, so collectors have had to do in-depth research in many different subjects to glean bits and pieces for a more complete history of the development of combs. A few contemporary books have been written and I know of at least two others now being written. They will be a much needed addition to what is commonly available to collectors' resources.

Collecting combs doesn't sound too exciting until you first see the beautiful pieces that were designed as jewelry for the hair. These are not the everyday, utility type comb. The earliest combs were of bone, ivory, and wood. Some are still available to see in museums. As time went on tortoise shell and horn were common materials, as well as silver, brass, and tin. Tortoise shell and horn could be made soft by heating so they became moldable. As they cooled, they would become hard again. These were fairly common materials used in the early to mid nineteenth century. In 1869, two brothers, Isaiah and John Hyatt, were experimenting to find a replacement for ivory. They developed a material they called celluloid, the main ingredients being nitro-cellulose and camphor. This was the first manmade plastic, and this new material changed the history of combs. Combs could be made cheaper and faster, so a whole new industry was formed. Celluloid could be used to imitate both ivory and tortoise shell. Since these two materials were becoming expensive and difficult to obtain celluloid surfaced at a good time. Both the hawksbill turtle and the elephant became protected species.

In the years prior to the development of celluloid, horn was a common material because it was cheap and readily available. In America, the comb industry centered around West Newbury and Leominster, Massachusetts. In 1759, Enoch Noyes opened a small shop to make combs using cattle horn. He was joined by a German, William Cleland, who brought with him old country skills and special tools for making combs. They became so successful that by 1793 there were 70 hornsmithers working in the area. Leominster is still referred to as the comb capital of America.

In 1993, a club was formed for collectors of combs. The Antique Comb Collectors Club is a not-for-profit organization composed of large and small, novice and expert collectors who share a common interest in vintage hair ornaments. The club's primary purpose is to provide a forum for a select group of special people who appreciate and admire the bygone era of fine, hand-crafted combs and other ornaments for the hair. Membership is open to anyone, worldwide, who wants to have fun buying, selling, collecting, or learning more about antique combs. More information about membership can be obtained by writing Mary Bachman, 4901 Grandview, Ypsilanti, MI, 48197-3762. Her book, Collector's Guide to Hair Combs, is available from Collector Books.
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