Artifact Corner: Victorian Hair Combs

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at three beautiful hair combs from the Victorian Era. All three of the combs are made from tortoise shell, and all of them have signs of wear, which is unsurprising. These hair combs were regularly used, and therefore, stress was put on these accessories. These likely belonged to our Fannie Delord Webb Hall, who had thick, long, stunning hair. These must have looked incredible in her hair. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of women’s hair combs.

Hair combs have been used as far back as the Stone Age. Combs dating back to 10,000 BCE have been found made of boxwood and bone. Shubi, which is Chinese for comb, originated about 6000 years ago in China during the late Neolithic period. In ancient China, combs had a special status, a high artistic value, and were an important form of hair ornament in Chinese culture. Women in Rome also used hair combs, to hold up their elaborate and intricate hair styles. Hair combs are great for keeping updos up and adding a bit of flare to the look. Like our hair combs, many Roman hair combs were made of tortoise shell. Hair combs fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, but like so many fashion trends, came back during the Renaissance. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, women adorned their hair with hair combs made from all manor of materials. The Regency period saw hair combs being less popular, but by the Victorian period they were very much back in vogue, and Womens elaborate do’s needed that extra bit of flare. You can still find hair combs today, if you like to recreate a historic hairstyle, and now you can get them made from synthetic materials, and not harm any turtles.

Tortoise shell was considered a luxury good in the ancient world, and up until the 1880’s when the first type of thermoplastic, called celluloid was introduced to the public. It was far cheaper than actual tortoise shell goods, so quickly replaced it on the open market. Tortoise shell goods were made from the outer layer of a turtle shell, and usually comes from the Hawksbill species of sea turtle. It has been used in Asia and the West for centuries, and due to it moldable capabilities, it was highly sought after. When you heat tortoise shell, it can form a myriad of shapes, and when it cools it becomes rigid again, while holding the new shape you molded it into. Because of it amazing properties, Hawksbill tortoises were hunted in staggering numbers. Thankfully in the 1970’s the Hawksbill sea turtle was listed as an endangered species. Sadly, many countries continue to hunt them for their shells.

Our historic hair combs are made from a material that is harvested from an endangered species, so what does that mean? Because these pieces were made over 150 years ago, and were made before the species was endangered, we can safely continue to care for them and display them in our collections. All of them have some form of damage, which is to be expected, as they have likely had a lot of use and may have taken a tumble from someones hairstyle onto the floor a couple of times. Overall, they are still pretty sturdy, but we won’t be wearing them in our hair. They are beautiful reminder of women’s fashions accessories in the Victorian period, and we are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,