Artifact Corner: Victorian Comb and Brush

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a comb and brush set from the Victorian period. Both pieces have silver repousse, which is a design that is hammered into the silver from the underside of the piece. The comb is made from tortoise shell, which was very commonly used in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries. Tortoise shell was only banned from use in 1977 by the International Trade in Endangered Species. The brush is made with a wood backing, and natural or boar bristles. You can still purchase a boar bristle brush today, and are considered to be quite good for your hair. Boar bristle brushes help to better distribute your hairs natural oils, and can leave your hair feeling less frizzy. This comb and brush set were part of every ladies morning and evening routine, so let’s learn a bit more about the history of the comb and the brush.

The comb has been in use in various cultures from anywhere between 5,500 and 5,000 BCE. Archaeologists have found combs in Egypt and China from this time. Combs were originally carved from various different materials including, wood, bone, tortoise shell, and even ivory. Metal combs were and are still less common, but we have found gold, silver, copper, and steel combs. Today, most of the combs we use are made of plastic, because it can be easily sanitized, but wooden combs are still very common. All combs have teeth, which are called combdrums, and come in many different shapes and sizes, depending on what type of hair a person has, and what you want the comb to do. If you have long straight hair, you can use a finer toothed comb. If you have very curly hair, you want a wide toothed comb, so you don’t damage your hair when combing it.

Let’s move on to brushes. The history of the hair brush is a bit more complicated. Hair brushes were very labor intensive to make and therefore, were originally only used by very wealthy people. Imagine trying to set each individual boar bristle into a brush?! The hair brush as we know it was invented in the 1770’s by a man named William Kent. He founded Kent Brushes in Hertfordshire England, which is today credited with being the first known hair brush manufacturer. The company made it’s brushes using a wooden back with applied animal hair, and each brush took up to twelve people to craft it. Kent Brushes is still making their fine quality wooden brushes today, more than 240 years later. In the United States, the first patent for the modern hair brush was filed by Hugh Rock in 1854. Today, hair brushes, similar to combs, are mostly made of plastic. This is again because they are easier to sanitize.

This comb and brush set are rumored to have belonged to Catherine Dowling, the long time domestic and companion of Fannie Delord Hall. There is nothing to prove that she owned them, but it’s the only attribution we have for them. The comb is in good condition, but the silver handle is cracked, but still firmly in place on the comb. The brush on the other hand has seen better days. The handle has been broken off a couple of times, and repaired. Sadly, it has been broken again, and there is a small piece missing. We are so lucky to have these pieces in our collection. They are beautiful examples of Victorian women’s toiletries. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot