Combs were one of the most popular uses for horn, bone, tortoiseshell, wood, antler, ivory and iron. The different materials reflected the wealth of their users. Combs catered for a range of people and in some cases they were so valued by their owners they were included amongst their 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 1797 the Englishman, 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. The horn most commonly used for comb making in Europe and America was ox or buffalo horn. Buffalo horn was harder to work than ox-horn and was generally used by more experienced comb makers.
MacGregor, A., 'Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman period', Barnes and Noble Books, New Jersey, 1985.
Knight, E., H., (ed), 'Knights American Mechanical Dictionary', Vol 1, J.B. Ford and Company, New York, 1874
Schaverien, A., 'Horn, its History and its Uses', Everbest Printing Co., 2006
Mossman, S., (ed.), Early Plastics; perspectives, 1850-1950, Leicester University Press, London, 1997
Mossman, S., Morris, P. J. T., (eds.), 'The Development of Plastics', Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1993
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, April 2008
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