A handsome Victorian mantilla style hair comb in steer horn
CONDITION: good vintage condition
SIZE: 6 ins h x 5½ ins h (15 x 14 cm) decorative part 3 ins h (7.5 cm)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1870s – 1880s
MATERIALS: steer horn
Here is a very beautiful mid Victorian hair comb made from natural steer horn which has been clarified and then dyed a deep honey or amber colour. The ornament is made in one piece, with the heading and tines all in one. The design of openwork loops which we see around the top of the heading is a favourite one at this period. It gives the impression of having been hand carved from a solid piece of the base material, but this is not the case.
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 melded into various forms. 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.
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, celluloid and plated metals for the more popular end.
Horn was one of the most popular materials for hair combs in the 19th century because it could be easily treated to obtain a number of decorative effects. It could be dyed a range of colours. Horn could also be clarified so as to be almost translucent. This gives it the attractive colour of honey, and is a feature of many combs of the period. It could also be carved, pierced, stamped and when heated, twisted into ornamental shapes in the plastic manner described above.
The collage picture includes similar examples taken from contemporary photographic sources of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and shows the fashionable hair dressing of the day.
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