A collection of three early American steer horn hair combs
CONDITION: one comb has a chipped tine otherwise good vintage condition with expected wear
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1800-1830s
MATERIALS: steer horn
DESCRIPTION: Here are three fine examples of early American steer horn combs which probably date from the early 19th century. They are all very simple in design and unadorned. They rely upon their markings and finish for effect and were probably worn by Colonial ladies for everyday. Looking at the production aspects of these combs, the tines were obviously hand cut and they were probably made in small local workshops.
#1 has a rectangular heading and is made in natural coloured opaque cow horn. It measures 4 ins h x 4½ ins w (10 x 11 cm)
#2 is similar to #2 but has a heading with curved corners and is much darker in colouring. It measures 3½ ins h x 4½ ins w (9 x 11 cm)
#3 is made in clarified horn which has been rendered a lovely golden colour. It has a rectangular heading and measures 4 ins h x 4½ ins w (10 x 11 cm)
The collage picture shows sitters from contemporary early American paintings, revealing the hair styles of the period and wearing similar ornaments.
Early American portraits are a rich source of information for the types of hair accessories and manner of dressing the hair among colonial ladies. Among the most interesting are naïve portraits, done by self taught itinerant artists. While these artists may have lacked the polish and sophistication of their European counterparts they often minutely observed the details of a woman’s toilette. Consequently they are highly valued nowadays as part of a true and original American folk art.
The portraits show that these combs were placed high on the head in such a way as to be viewable from all angles. While some are plain and classic like our examples here, others were highly ornamental and delicately pierced or painted.
The domestic production of horn combs in the USA is well documented. These ornaments were initially had made by local artisans and peddled around the local villages or markets. It was not until the late 19th century that mass production techniques took over.
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 and was often rendered a lovely amber colour.
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