Long before people started lathering their hair with shampoo, they used combs and brushes to clean, condition, and style their curly locks. Not only do hair brushes untangle and smooth hair, they also massage the scalp, remove dirt and dandruff, and distribute natural fats from the roots of the hair to the ends, which gives hair a natural shine and prevents ends from splitting. Flat combs are also made for detangling, grooming, and styling, but certain combs were designed specifically to pick out fleas and lice. Still other combs were carved into decorative accessories meant to hold the hair in a particular style.
Before we had hair brushes and combs, broken seashells, animals bones, and jagged stones were used for untangling hair. African women traditionally employed porcupine quills to undo cornrow braids, for example. Some believe hair brushes evolved from paint brushes. Eventually, people thought to drill holes in a paddle, attach bristles to the holes, and add a handle. Hair brushes, combs, and mirrors have been excavated from the tombs of ancient Egyptians, and hieroglyphics even show royalty wearing neatly kept wigs. Combs have also been discovered at archaeological digs in Persia, and Viking documents reveal that the men groomed with combs.
Combs—flat implements with a shaft on one side and teeth (known as “combdrumbs”) on the other—were traditionally made from ivory, animal bone, and tortoise shell. They’ve also been made out of fine-grained wood like box wood and cherry wood, as well as metal and plastics. Hairdresser combs feature fine teeth and a thin handle, known as a “rattail,” used to part hair. It’s not uncommon to find a comb with wider teeth on one side and finer teeth on the other. Special combs have such fine teeth they can dislodge fleas, lice, and other parasites; these were carried by soldiers in the Civil War to comb lice out of their hair and beards. Hard rubber combs with wide combdrumbs have been employed for styling.
Aside from their practical uses, combs have been used in some cultures in religious ceremonies and rituals. For example, a 5,000-year-old comb found in Egypt is decorated with elephants and snakes associated with the creation of the universe in African mythology. Today we see African Americans wearing pick combs in their Afros, as known as Afro combs, which derives from such African spiritual traditions. Combs are also still significant for certain Native American tribes, who use them for headdresses and ornaments worn during weddings and other ceremonies.
Decorative hair combs made of wood, bone, ivory, or metal, and adorned with gemstones, precious metals, feathers, or painted designs have been worn in cultures around the world, including China, the Philippines, Turkey, Armenia, and Scandinavia. In Spain and Latin American countries, women wear lace mantillas in their hair, held in place by combs called “peinetas.” Ornamental combs were particularly important as a symbol of status in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Japanese combs would be carved from aromatic wood such as cherry, plum, or sandalwood, as well as ivory, horn, or tortoise shell, and then decorated with beautiful inlays made of enamel, precious metals, or mother-of-pearl.
In the Western world, decorative hair combs became necessary objects in the 1800s, when women grew their hair long but always wore it in a pile on top of their heads. Victorian and Edwardian hair combs were produced from ivory, precious metals, pewter, aluminum, brass, tortoise, amber, coral, jet, bone, horn, gutta-percha, and wood. In the 1920s and '30s, short bob haircuts were adorned by Art Deco, Bakelite hair combs accented with rhinestones, beads, feathers, and enamel and filigree artwork. René Lalique even designed a beautiful dragonfly hair comb.
In the American colonies, ivory grooming combs were coveted, but these imported luxuries were far too expensive for most families. Into the void stepped colonial “hornsmithing” c...
Through history, hair-brush handles and paddles have been made of wood, bronze, and copper, while the bristles were often made of porcupine quills or rigid hairs from horses or wild boars. Before mass-production, only the very wealthy could afford these hand-crafted objects, which meant that smooth, tidy hair signaled refinement. Artisans produced ornate vanity sets, usually including a brush, comb, and hand mirror, and these were popular gifts in high society for brides and pregnant wives. Hugh Rock, the first person to patent a hair brush in the United States in 1854, was known for his beautiful metal-handled scalloped-edged vanity sets.
The first company to manufacture hair brushes was G.B. Kent & Sons in England, which started producing wild-boar-bristle brushes in 1777. These brushes received the official stamp of approval—the Royal Warrant—from the British throne, and Kent brushes spread with English imperialism, thanks to the Royal Navy and Army officers and their wives, who packed Kent brushes with them when their husbands were sent to serve around the world. Today, Kent makes more than 250 types of brushes.
At the Kent factory in the 1800s, it took 12 workers to complete a domed bristle brush, which was hand-stitched by a process known as “hand drawing” or “long holing.” In 1885, British engineer Mason Pearson, who was working at the British Steam Brush Works, invented the automatic brush-boring machine. That earned him a silver medal at the International Inventions Exhibition in London the same year. Also in 1885, Pearson developed the “pneumatic” rubber-cushion hair brush, which is still used today.
In the United States, Samuel Firey patented a brush with both elastic wire teeth and natural bristles in 1870. In 1898, an African American woman named Lyda Newman patented a brush you could take apart and clean more readily. It featured synthetic bristles and a detachable handle, as well as wide slots that allowed dirt and dust in the hair to be swept away. These impurities would pass through the ”air chambers,” which are now known as “vents,” into the recessed back of the brush, which could be removed and cleaned between brushings.
By the turn of the 20th century, hair brushes and combs made of celluloid, ebonite, galalith, and metal were becoming more common, even as more and more people were washing their hair with shampoo. Alfred Fuller, who wanted to make durable brushes that most people could afford, started selling his grooming products door-to-door in 1906. His enterprise blossomed into a million-dollar company. In first half of the 20th century, his Fuller Brush Company salesmen, who offered hair and cleaning brushes, became so familiar to American audiences that Donald Duck even played one in a Walt Disney animation.
In the 1920s, the Viscoloid Company, again, in Leominster, became one of the top makers of celluloid hair combs. After World War II, cheap brushes and combs were made of new plastics, which replaced combs of ivory, tortoise shell, and animal bone. But unlike metal combs, plastic combs would shatter when they were dropped on the bathroom floor. In 1960, the first “unbreakable” plastic combs were introduced. The Cardinal Comb & Brush Manufacturing Company, founded in Leominster in 1969, became a big player in the new plastics market.
Today, plastic hair brushes often have nylon bristles with balls at the end, while vented hair brushes help hair dry faster when styling it with a blow dryer. Hair brushes can be flat, round, or half-round, depending on the intended hairstyle, and come in a wide variety of bristles suited to different types of hair. Brushes known as the military oval, which lack a handle, are popular with men.