An unusual Victorian mourning hair comb with a moulded Vulcanite cameo
CONDITION: hinge slightly loose otherwise good vintage condition
SIZE: 4 ins h x 2 ins w (10 x 5 cms)
DATE: 1840s – 1860s
This is an unusual comb which may well have been used for mourning because of the dull dark nature of the material. The main feature of the heading is the large moulded Vulcanite cameo which occupies the centre of the heading. It shows a classical “Greek” female figure which faces to the left.
Cameos were extremely popular throughout the Victorian period. As well as genuine cameos which are carved out of shell, they were produced in a range of other materials such as coral, jet, celluloid and tortoiseshell.
The main feature in this type of comb is that the heading is adjustable. The comb is technically sophisticated, 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.
The importance of Victorian mourning etiquette upon the production of jewellery and personal ornaments was very marked. This etiquette decreed that in deep mourning, the widow and close relative of the deceased must dress in plain dark garments. The only ornaments allowed to be worn at this time were those of jet, which is a natural material found in Whitby, a small town on the East coast of the UK. In order to extend the supply of jet when it became exhausted, various other materials were employed. One of these was French Jet.
Vulcanisation is the process of adding sulphur to rubber to harden it. Various ratios of sulphur added to rubber, among other chemical additives, results in rubber products with different characteristics. The vulcanisation of natural rubber with sulphur was discovered by Charles Goodyear in the USA about 1839 and was patented by Hancock in England in May 1843 and Goodyear in USA in June. Patents for hard rubber (vulcanite) were granted to Hancock in England in 1843 and to Nelson Goodyear (brother of Charles) in USA in 1851. Mouldings in vulcanite (hard rubber) were exhibited by both Hancock and Goodyear at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The material is most commonly black in colour and has been used to make not only combs, but also buttons, jewellery, fountain pens, pipe stems (both plain and decorative), musical instruments, etc.
Also known as Ebonite natural rubber is in the form of latex obtained from certain tropical trees. It was introduced commercially in the 1840s and was adopted by comb manufacturers because it had several advantages over horn and tortoiseshell. These substances were limited by the size, grain and thickness of the natural material. Being cheap to produce it was readily adaptable to comb manufacture. It was mostly used for dressing combs but ornamental combs with simple moulded designs are also found.
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