Combing Through History

Object-based Transnational History

A digital repository that explores the history of the comb

Ancient Egyptian ivory comb with broken comb teeth
Hair Comb Decorated with Rows of Animals
Egypt, Predynastic, Late Naqada III
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This comb dates back to Ancient Egypt’s prehistory, before even the rise of the Old Kingdom. Probably ceremonial, there are elephants, snakes, birds, giraffes, and other animals carved into the ivory instrument. The image of elephants walking on snakes is most likely symbolic since many African myths have elephants and serpents in their origin myths. The top row may represent a creator deity. The teeth are mostly missing. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Afro hair comb with black fist design
Made by Eden Enterprise, Inc.
American, 21st Century
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Elaine Nichols.

Made of plastic and metal, this hair pick demonstrates both a transition towards beauty tools made of less expensive materials such as plastic, allowing combs to be more than an item for few, as well as showing the different hair care materials used by people with different hair textures. The handle has a raised fist, relating the object to the Black Power Movement and was manufactured by Eden Enterprise, Inc. Held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

What can combs teach us about people throughout history?

Merriam Webster dictionary defines a comb as “a toothed instrument used for adjusting, cleaning, or confining hair.” As this definition indicates, combs are tools that span chronology and the globe. Through the examination of materiality, utility, gender, class, and race, how do comb designs reflect different cultures? We believe that combs are ubiquitous throughout the world, as they are both objects of utilitarian need, beauty, and sometimes both — as seen with combs to affix crowns to women’s hair. This site produces an interactive and multi-faceted website repository through Omeka that explores the history of the comb. This encyclopedic tool will highlight objects in museum collections, present thematic vignettes (such as researchers’ informal blogs) to explore the items’ meanings, feature a pictorial timeline, and a Twitter feed to amplify existing literature and researchers’ findings. Be sure to check out the cross-cultural timeline. We hope it provides some context about the different topics explored in the aggregated collections in Omeka.

This project has been developed for our Clio Wired class about Digital Humanities at George Mason University. We are a group of scholars interested in gender, race, digital humanities, museum studies, and all the intersections there.

Emily Mae Anderson, Caroline Greer, Janet Hammond, Jayme Kurland