A handsome mid Victorian Spanish style hair comb in steer horn
CONDITION: good vintage condition
SIZE: 5½ ins h x 5 ins w (14 x 13 cm) decorative part 3 ins w (7.5 cm)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1870s – 1880s
MATERIALS: steer horn
Here is a very handsome Spanish style comb made from steer horn which has been dyed to resemble the much more expensive tortoiseshell. It has a lovely openwork design with a cut out shape suggestive of a leaf.
This type of ornament is often known as Spanish or mantilla comb because it resembles a smaller version of the traditional large shell ornaments worn by Spanish ladies with their native dress. In practice any comb which has a high upstanding heading or top which stands proud of the top of the head is often called a mantilla comb.
High topped combs like this were extremely popular in the later Victorian era during the 1870s and 1880s. This was due to the debut of the opera Carmen, which promoted a fashion for Spanish style combs with extremely tall headings. Such combs were produced in a variety of materials from tortoiseshell and silver for the higher end of the market down to horn and celluloid for the more popular end.
Horn was one of the most popular materials for hair combs in the 19th century. Not only was the material was cheap, but also 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.
Horn combs were painted using an application of lime, saleratus and litharge skilfully applied to the surface of the horn with a feather or fine brush. 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 could also be carved, pierced, stamped and when heated, twisted into ornamental shapes in a plastic manner. It is an extremely flexible material, and when heated it can be bent, pierced and stretched into all manner of forms, almost like plastic.
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