Some combs are used to groom hair, others to embellish and hold it in place. This decorative lady’s hair comb dates from the nineteenth century. By the 1830s, the austere, classically inspired Empire or Regency fashions of the previous twenty years had been supplanted by exuberant gowns sporting large sleeves and broad skirts. Hairstyles changed in accordance with the fashion. The stylish woman, who formerly drew her hair back into a simple tight bun accentuated by a few demure side curls, now braided, teased, and lacquered her tresses into an elaborate coiffeur, often with an immense topknot. Long luxurious hair, whether plaited or piled high, was considered a mark of feminine beauty throughout the rest of the century. The glossy, translucent, mottled surface of this tortoiseshell comb, with cut filigree decoration of delicate scrollwork along its edges, would have provided a rich looking finishing touch.

Tortoiseshell is a luxury material prized for its warm-toned marbled surface, translucency and durability. It is the horny outer layer of a turtle shell, and usually comes from the Hawksbill species of sea turtle. Tortoiseshell was a natural precursor to synthetic plastics, and has been used in both Asia and the West for centuries. Thin sheets of the material could serve as a decorative veneer on furniture, or it could be employed to make a number of small practical and ornamental objects, like boxes or jewelry. It was softened and formed into a variety of shapes, like the compound curves of this comb, by heating and molding. As the molded tortoiseshell cooled, it would stiffen and retain its new form.

By the 1880s, simulated tortoiseshell made of celluloid, the first thermoplastic, became available. Less costly but as appealing as the real thing, imitation tortoiseshell combs and hair ornaments found a ready market. The success of celluloid and twentieth-century plastics that simulate tortoiseshell is fortunate, for although the trade in Hawksbill turtles was outlawed in the late twentieth century, it is now a critically endangered species due to decades of overfishing and harvesting for its shell.


Cynthia Trope is the Associate Curator of Product Design and Decorative Arts at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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