Browse Exhibits (6 total)


Two-sided comb with carving of lovers in a garden

Along with our overarching interest in materiality and the use of combs, we aim to think about intersectionality and include an analysis of combs and class consciousness. 

Since combs have been made out of rare materials such as precious metals, tortoiseshell, bone, or ivory, ancient and early modern combs were often used by elites or for important events such as a bridal trousseau or grave goods. 

As faux materials became more widely available, combs made of celluloid or plastic often mimicked more expensive materials, allowing those with less wealth to enjoy the look of higher-end designs.

However, people of all classes have always used combs. As such a ubiquitous item, for cleaning, arranging, and decorating hair, combs blur the lines between classes simply because of its functions.

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Combs from Ancient Egypt


There was no shortage of ornamental combs in ancient Egypt. These unique objects played a part in ceremonies dedicated to the gods. Likewise, it was common to find these objects buried with the deceased. They were meant to be carried into the afterlife and used for eternity.

Combs were also created for every day use. Due to the intense heat, many Egyptian women would shave their heads and wear wigs. Combs were used to keep the wigs clean and in place. The following exhibit showcases the different styles of Egyptian combs through history.

Further reading about the beauty objects ancient Egyptians used can be done in the Red Land, Black Land book by Barbara Mertz.

Mertz, Barbara. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. First published 1966 by Coward-McCann (New York). 

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Women used combs both to detangle their hair and as hair accessories.  Many tiaras and crowns have combs attached within to ensure that they stay fixed to one's head. Combs are also used as accessories in their own right, and signify one's class or personal style.

We recognize that there are fewer combs in this collection solely dedicated for men's use. While these exist, the perused archives and collections tend to collect more women-centered combs than men-centered. Historically, women have donned longer hair than men, which may be why combs made for women seem more present in museum collections than those made for men.

The following combs made for women and men show style and utility over time.

Lice Combs

comb with the adoration.JPG

Throughout our project, we explore a number of themes related to combs from different time periods and places. Through these combs, we will examine issues regarding materiality, design, and use.

Now, by looking at the functionality of combs through one specific and ubiquitous use, de-lousing, we compare and contrast combs designed for such an unattractive purpose to those designed to show wealth or for cosmetic use. 

Lice have been a problem for humans throughout history, and researchers have found evidence of lice and nits in both mummies and combs found by archaeologists. In this exhibit, we will travel through time to look at lice combs in different contexts and study their history. 

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Materiality: Ivory

Fragment of an Ancient Egyptian Comb with Animal Carvings

For many, the word “ivory” brings to mind elephants, but the term actually refers to any animal tooth or tusk used as carving material. Since antiquity, ivory has symbolized wealth. Sources of ivory include elephants, walruses, hippopotamuses, narwhals, and whales, and mammoth ivory (for example) was carved as early as 35,000 BC. Many artisans worldwide preferred African elephant tusks due to their large size and ease of carving. Poaching to supply the demand for these tusks has driven African elephants to the brink of extinction.

This exhibition will present a selection of ivory combs in museum collections and provide a brief survey of the chronological and geographical scope of ivory through combs. From luxury examples to everyday use, ivory combs have been used to de-tangle and adorn women and men throughout history.  Like tortoiseshell, ivory fell out of fashion in the 1950s, as plastic became more readily available, affordable, and less environmentally destructive than ivory, which correlates with the rise in animal conservation and protection.


Walker, John Frederick. Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of the Elephants. New York: Grove Press, 2009.


Who Is Missing?

peineta comb.jpg

While our group selected combs across time and place, we acknowledge that the time range and areas are not comprehensive. Regions included are the following: North America, Asia, Africa, Egypt, The Middle East, South America, and Europe. We encourage greater representation of overlooked populations. These selections reflect the aforementioned peoples. Please let us know of any suggested additions to our repository.

This exhibit will have pages that link out to combs from places and people not included in our Omeka collection due to copyright protection or other issues.

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