People have been using hair combs to untangle their locks since prehistoric times. Probably, as soon as the first caveman awoke with “floor head,” he went searching for something sturdier than his own fingers to straighten that mess out. Anthropologists say hair-care items were used as early as 15,000 B.C.
The first combs were made of animal bone and wood, usually hand carved and hand polished, although a comb was found from the 5th Century made of ten ounces of pure gold. Early humans used combs crafted of onyx, alabaster, and ebony, too. The idea of having larger, wide-spaced teeth on one end of the comb and smaller, close-packed teeth on the other dates back to at least 500 years—a set of wooden combs found on the 16th-century ship Mary Rose proves that this particular design has been popular at least that long.
Combs made their way to America in the 1700s. New England farmers used the shells of tortoises to craft their hair-grooming devices, although wooden combs also were popular. As international trade made more exotic materials available, ivory combs became trendy.
Then came the 1930s and the invention of plastics. One of the first things Flapper Era people wanted to make out of this new material was hair combs. It was easier than chasing down an elephant or a tortoise.
Plastic combs were inexpensive and convenient—but the “teeth” were fragile. It was pretty easy to break off a comb’s tooth by dropping it on the floor or even carrying it in a pocket. Your grandfather’s comb was probably marked UNBREAKABLE and was made of another relatively new material from the early part of that century: vulcanized rubber. The same material that eventually became tires for your car was first used to make unbreakable combs. They were pricey, but popular—because even thrifty grandpas realized that an unbreakable comb would technically last forever. Even if Grandpa lost a comb, someone else would find it, wash it off, and its useful life would continue. Rubber combs were practically immortal. Grandpa’s comb is probably still in your house somewhere.
But women, especially those with curly hair, soon discovered that they would end up on the losing end of any battle between a hair knot and an unbreakable comb. The comb teeth wouldn’t fall out—instead, the hair would break off. In the 1960s, someone invented a comb specifically for women (and other long-haired people) that was much kinder to locks.
The wide-tooth comb was made of more durable plastic and featured a convenient handle and rounded teeth. It was a huge hit back then, and it is still a great choice for detangling wet hair. It might not be made from the tusks of an exotic beast, but it will be available in a variety of colors and will fit in your purse or your back pocket. And a wide-tooth comb is hard to break, although you can watch YouTube videos of people trying.
So the next time you pick up your hair comb, remember—you’re actually holding a little tool with a long and intriguing history.