A handsome Victorian steer horn Spanish mantilla style comb with “chain link” design
CONDITION: good vintage condition with expected wear
SIZE: 5 ins h x 5 ins w (13 x 13 cm) decorative part 2 ins h (5 cm)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1870s – 1880s
MATERIALS: steer horn
Here is one of those handsome steer horn high topped combs which the Victorians loved. The design of cable chains which we see around the top of the heading is a favourite one at this period. It comprises a row of uniform oval links of horn that are connected to form a chain along the top of the heading, with loosely dangling links at each extremity. The body of the comb has been dyed to a warm opaque brown.
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.
The collage picture includes examples taken from contemporary Victorian photographic sources and shows similar items and the fashionable hair dressing of the day.
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 because the material was cheap, but also because it could be easily treated to obtain a number of decorative effects. Mid Victorian hair combs and tiaras might be beautifully carved or wrought into fancy shapes like the example here. One of the most important characteristics of horn its ability to be softened by the application of heat and melded into various forms. On cooling the material retains the form into which it has been shaped. It also possesses natural bonding properties whereby small plates may be fused together to obtain larger ones of the type utilized for large decorative mantilla style hair combs.
In comb making this means that various decorative elements intended to ornament the headings could be fused in position without apparent joins, giving the appearance of having been hand carved from one large piece. Its thermoplastic properties mean that material may be pressed or shaped to a basic shape in a mould. It can then be further embellished by other decorative treatments. This is how such elaborate designs were formed.
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