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Hair Combs

Updated on April 14, 2010

A comb is a a toothed implement for arranging or adorning the hair. The word probably derives from the Greek gamphos ("peg") or gamphe ("jaw"). Combs are used by most peoples. They may be of wood, bone, shell, ivory, metal, rubber, or synthetic materials such as plastic. Combs may have one row of teeth of two rows on opposite edges, and they may be highly decorated.

Combs for unsnarling and smoothing the hair, called small-toothed combs, usually are long with short teeth; half of a single row or one of two rows of teeth is often coarser. Combs for holding the hair in place and ornamenting it are generally shorter with a single row of longer teeth.

Photo by Aleksandra Solovjova
Photo by Aleksandra Solovjova

Early Combs

The earliest combs, dating from the Stone Age, are of wood or bone with a simple curved back and a single row of triangular teeth. Undecorated double-edged combs appeared in the Bronze Age. It is difficult to tell whether some of these early combs were used for arranging hair or for weaving cloth.

The first decorated combs were produced after 1000 B.C., especially in Egypt, where thick wigs were fashionable, and in Assyria, where men wore heavily curled hair and beards. Some of these wood or ivory double-edged combs were elaborately carved on both sides with the center design cut out. Others had incised or relief decoration.

Combs in the West

In the Middle Ages (and still today in the Roman Catholic Church) ivory combs were liturgical objects used during the consecration of a bishop. Such combs, usually double-edged, might be intricately carved with foliage, figures, or typical Christian symbols such as chalices and crosses, or they might be inlaid or jeweled. The same richness characterized secular combs used by the nobility, especially those of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, which were decorated with floral scrolls, pastoral scenes, and legendary characters.

In the 17th century and later periods, whenever women wore their own long hair uncovered and elaborately dressed, they sometimes used combs as ornaments; for example, Spanish women wore a high, carved tortoiseshell comb to support a mantilla. In the late 17th century and early 18th century, when fashionable men and women wore long curled wigs, they combed them in public. The short hairstyles of the 20th century have sharply reduced the use of ornamental combs.

Combs in the Non-Western World

In the East the traditional dress of Chinese, Indonesian, and Japanese women often included one or more ornamental, single-edged combs. Pronglike teeth surmounted by a carved panel held a bun or locks of hair in place. Such combs were made of tortoiseshell, ivory, or metal, the material and decoration, sometimes inlaid, indicating the wearer's rank or the occasion. In the South Sea Islands, men wear ornamental combs. In Melanesia these combs are made of long sticks of wood or bamboo in a whisk broom shape, the tops adorned with beads, shells, or feathers; on other islands high wooden combs are decorated with geometric cutouts (Samoa), inlaid mother-of-pearl (northern Celebes), or carved handles representing ceremonial headdresses (Admiralty Islands). Ornamental wood or ivory combs with carved figures are traditionally worn by some African Negroes. American Indian tribes made wood or bone single-or double-edged combs, some richly carved with figures, as in the Pacific Northwest.

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