Back-comb, stained ox horn, made by Stewart and Company, Aberdeen, Scotland, 1873-1883
Combs were one of the most popular uses for horn and in earlier times were also made from bone, wood, antler, ivory and iron. The different materials catered for a range of people, and prices, and were valued enough in some cases to be included amongst burial goods. Comb makers guilds were formed in Europe in the 1200s where the craft flourished. The traditional process of making a comb was labour intensive as it involved cutting the teeth with a special saw known as a 'stadda' and then hand carving and polishing the finished product. This process was greatly speeded up when in October 1797 Mr. Bundy took out the first patent for a comb-making machine. It consisted of a number of circular saws on a mandrel with the comb-blank being mounted on a carriage and pushed into the saws by means of a screw.
Horn combs were generally more expensive than those made from bone and by the nineteenth century comb manufacturers were dealing with large wholesale orders. In 1833 the Ordinance Office in England placed an order for 8,000 combs to be shipped to the convict settlements in Australia.
By the middle of the nineteenth century horn was still relatively easy to come by in Europe but other products such as tortoiseshell and ivory were becoming expensive. This led to the staining of ox-horn objects to look as if were made from tortoiseshell.
In the 1660s it became fashionable to wear a comb in a chignon or false hairpiece. These 'braid' or 'back-combs' served an ornamental rather than a practical purpose and were often elaborately decorated. The top part of the comb was perforated and impressed with flowers, scrolls, or sometimes decorative panels depicting animals. These designs changed according to the fashions of the day but the decorations became heavier in the Victoria period, although the English preferred simpler styles to those on the continent.
This 'back-comb' is made from stained ox-horn and is one of 12 purchased for the original 'Technological Museum' collections in 1883. These combs were acquired for the museum by P. Simmonds during his stay in London and were all manufactured by Stewart and Co. in Aberdeen, Scotland. On receipt of the horn and bone collections J. H. Maiden, curator at the museum wrote, "I have no doubt the horn and bone collection will prove of much educational value." Used initially to illustrate the uses and staining of horn these combs are now also significant in for their relevance to mid-Victorian style and design.
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Geoff Barker, March, 2007