A classic steer horn mid Victorian hinged comb with folded down heading
CONDITION: good vintage condition
SIZE: 4 ins h x 4½ ins w (10 x 11 cms)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1850s – 1880s
MATERIALS: steer horn, metal
Here we have a large and very beautiful example of a classic hinged mid Victorian hair comb with a fold down heading. The ornament has a comb mount of opaque steer horn which has been dyed to resemble the more expensive tortoise shell. It has five curved tines to hold it in place against the hair. This is secured by a rotating brass hinge to a tiara like heading, comprising a curved semi-circular horn plate to which a circular embellishment has been added in the centre. The horn has an unusual ragged outline and has been carved in this way to represent leaves or foliage.
The main feature of this type of comb is that the heading is adjustable, being attached to the prongs by a flexible hinge of gilt metal, which allows it to rotate through 90 or more degrees. This enables the ornament to be adjusted to various positions within the coiffure. This feature can be seen in the various photographs.
Such combs may be worn either in the back of the hairdressing, within the chignon, or above the forehead as a tiara where they give the effect of a tiara proper. This effect may be seen in the pictures on the mannequin.
Horn was one of the most popular materials for hair combs in the 19th century, not only because the material was cheap, but also because it could be easily treated to obtain a number of decorative effects. It could be dyed a range of colours. It was always cheaper than tortoiseshell, and was often treated to imitate the distinctive “tortoise” pattern of the more expensive material. this was achieved by painting it with various dyes and chemicals. Sometimes it was done with great artistry such that it is difficult to distinguish the horn from the genuine shell, particularly when two or three different colours were used.
Horn is an extremely flexible material, and when heated it can be bent, pierced and stretched into all manner of forms, almost like plastic. It could also be easily carved and pierced into elaborate designs.
In the first part of the 19th century, the making of combs was still a handicraft, and many combs were made in small local manufactories. However by the mid century they were being produced in vast numbers by means of mechanical die-stamping. Polishing and finishing, including painting the horn with chemicals to simulate the tortoise markings, was usually undertaken in the UK as a cottage industry by women and children who were the families of the comb-makers.
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