Combing Through History

A digital repository that explores the transnational history of the comb

What can combs teach us about people throughout history?

Hair combs allow us to study past and present people in a multitude of ways. The materiality provides insight into a culture’s use of environmental resources as well as status distinctions according to material and cost. Use, function, and design allow us to think about a culture’s beauty standards, cultural practices, and utilitarian needs. Combs also answer questions about race, class, and gender. People use different combs according to their hair textures. Shifting materials from celluloid to plastic allowed lower classes access to a popular, attractive look. Through space and time, the standard design of a comb, with teeth and a handle or shaft, proves the universality of these items and their use.

Ancient Egyptian ivory comb with broken comb teeth
Image Curtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This image is in the Public Domain. Theodore M. Davis Collection. Hair Comb Decorated with Rows of Wild Animals. ca. 3200–3100 B.C. 30.8.224.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

This comb provides an example of our project’s analysis. Found in Egypt, it dates to 3200-3100 BCE, or the Predynastic age. The artisan carved rows of different animals into the elephant tusk, namely giraffes, hyenas, cattle, elephants, and snakes. The latter two hold mythological significance, regarding creation in African folklore. The local environment and native animals inspired the design of the comb. As The Metropolitan Museum of Art states, the elaborate carving and the materiality suggest that the comb was part of either a ceremonial practice or funeral equipment for an elite.

This comb highlights important ritualistic and religious significance in Predynastic Egypt. The design and materiality outline mythological and religious beliefs related to the creation and the afterlife respectively, and the materiality hints at elitist wealth and class status. Possessing religious and ceremonial importance rather than practical function, the ubiquitous item further stretches our understanding of combs’ purposes.

This site produces an interactive and multi-faceted website repository through Omeka that explores combs’ history. This encyclopedic tool will highlight objects in museum collections, feature a pictorial timeline, and a Twitter feed to amplify existing literature and researchers’ findings. The cross-cultural timeline provides context about the different topics explored in the aggregated collections in Omeka. Our Omeka exhibits and the Ancient Egyptian comb discussed above should shed light on how you can analyze these items to see broader historical themes.

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

Emily Mae Anderson, Caroline Greer, Jayme Kurland