Category Archives: English Hair Comb

Victorian Ivory Combs in the 1860’s

As love’s fire became firelight, Mary E. wrote on the inside of her comb box, “This is for Carrie M. Golches. Mary E [last name].” Another’s pen added, “She passed away about 1923, age 91.” The script is American; the comb was probably a gift, brought over from England.

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An intricate design of berries and leaves surround a medallion with two bunches of grapes, over a comb of finely carved teeth, c. 1860. The design’s finesse immediately tells you it was made for a woman of privilege, sheltered from the awareness of poverty.

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The Victorian Age was an apex in English comb making. Comb makers arrived in London from France to take advantage of higher wages and a steady market. However, it was also the age of Dickens’ Great Expectations. He and other authors revealed the humiliation, Industrial-Age child labor, and hunger of the poor.

In tracing the connections to how Mary E. got her comb, one cannot ignore upper-class indifference to what Prime Minister Disraeli described as “the two nations,” nor can one ignore Africa.

In the ivory trade, the problem was getting the 80- and 100-pound tusks from the killing grounds to coastal trading centers at Mombasa, Mozambique and Zanzibar. Merchant Michael W. Shepard wrote in 1844, “It is the custom to buy a tooth of ivory and a slave with it to carry it to the sea shore. Then the ivory and slaves are carried to Zanzibar and sold.”

Missionary Alfred J. Swann wrote in the 1880’s, “… Feet and shoulders were a mass of open sores, made more painful by the swarms of flies which followed the march and lived on the flowing blood. They presented a moving picture of utter misery,” noting also that they were covered with the scars of the “chikote,” a leather whip.

Much of the ivory was sent to its primary importation center, Dieppe, France, where it then came to England…

…and a young Mary E. accepted a gift from her true love, which she meticulously kept in its original box until the end of her life.

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BarbaraAnne’s Hair Comb Blog is sponsored by Ethnic Jewels Magazine and Barbenette Designs. We’re introducing a new one with more products: hats, t-shirts, mugs, totebags, and notecards. Click the image to see.

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Diamond Hair Combs and Tiaras

Tiaras have been an essential part of a woman’s wedding dowry since the Middle Ages. As early as the 1850’s, aristocratic women bought sets of diamond sprays and brooches. Delicately set in platinum and looking like embroidery, these pieces came with different fittings such as a tiara frame, hinge for a tortoiseshell comb, or pin…Continue Reading

Victorian Hair Pins

Whether the hairstyle was divided into three or more parts, some short, others long; or, the hair was complexly braided at the back, Victorian women adorned their chignons with tortoiseshell combs and pins. On top of the pins were fantastic gold creations of griffins with ruby eyes, silver so delicately woven it looked like lace,…Continue Reading

More Treasures from The Frances Wright Collection

Frances has been generous enough to share more of her treasures with us. The photographs were taken by her husband, Terry Wright. This is a Romanov comb, the real thing. Faint now. It is tortoiseshell, with a gold, silver, and pearl heading and the mark of one of Faberge’s most famous designers. The original box,…Continue Reading

The Frances Wright Collection

Many women practice their art secretly. Emily Dickinson had fewer than 12 poems published in her lifetime until her sister Lavinia discovered 1800 of them in a locked chest after she died. Jane Austen was first published anonymously. Collecting is also an art. To do it well, you must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the…Continue Reading

Jen Cruse: The Butterfly Motif

The butterfly, the short-lived ethereal beauty of gardens and countryside, has been a favourite motif adorning hair jewellery for at least the past 250 years and particularly popular through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its delicate form is found on combs and hairpins from many countries around the world, and even featured on the…Continue Reading

Child & Child Tiara and Comb

In 1848, English painter William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They rejected what they considered to be the mechanistic approach of Mannerist artists, who came after Michelangelo and Raphael, for a more elegant, intensely colored, and sophisticated style. Mr. Hunt was a regular client of Child & Child (1880-1916), a jewelry firm known for…Continue Reading

Tortoiseshell Hair Combs from Different Worlds

The Bruce Frank Primitive Art Gallery has a beautiful 19th-Century tortoiseshell- and buffalo-horn comb for sale. Price on request. If you don’t have a tribal comb, have no idea of how to buy one correctly, but would like a top-class piece, I have no problem putting my name on a recommendation to buy this one.…Continue Reading

Diamond Hair Combs at Sotheby’s

It’s amazing what different artists can do with the same idea. Boucheron made this curved diamond tiara c. 1910 in London. One could attach it to the blonde tortoiseshell comb fitting with a screwdriver. It sold for 15,600 GBP on December 15, 2005. This diamond-and-pearl tiara hinged to a tortoiseshell comb is unsigned. In the…Continue Reading