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In the Eighteenth Century, combs had the basic function of keeping hair tidy and ordered. However, they were also a vital tool in the creation of the elaborate hairstyles and wigs popular during that period. Therefore, combs can provide an interesting insight into Eighteenth Century fashions and standards of beauty. Indeed, there seems to be a theme in Eighteenth Century literature, in which women are praised for their appearance, but labelled as 'vain' for wearing makeup, or having elaborate hairstyles. For instance, mermaids in the Eighteenth Century were often depicted with a comb and mirror. The beauty of the mermaids would be praised, but their beauty would also be seen as a danger to men. From this perspective, combs can almost be seen as a weapon to ‘lure’ in men, or to somehow deceive them.


Furthermore, the way in which combs were made also provides an insight into other aspects of the Eighteenth Century. For most of the century, combs were made by hand, but this changed in 1796 when a new machine was designed for the purpose of making combs. The creation of this machine reflects major changes taking place in British society, as part of the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, the materials used in to make combs also provides an insight into colonialism, since combs were often made from ivory, which was imported into England from parts of the British Empire in West Africa. As a result, combs are linked to the cruelty and violence of colonialism.


Making Combs



(Comb, Metropolitan Museum of Art)                                                                 (The New Patients)


There are two main methods for making combs, depending on whether the comb is being cut from ivory or horn. Thomas Mortimer’s Dictionary of Trade and Commerce describes these two processes. For instance, if a comb is being made from ivory, then the ivory is filed into shape using a rasp, and a saw is used to cut the teeth of the comb (Mortimer 578). The same method also applies when making combs “from box, tortoise-shell, and sometimes... horn” (Mortimer 578), but only if the horn has already been cut into the right shape. If this is not the case, a different method will be used, in which the horn is cut into rings, and these rings are heated, cut in two, and flattened between two “hot iron plates” (Mortimer 578). Then, the teeth are finally cut to complete the comb (Mortimer 578).


For most of the Eighteenth Century, it seems that combs were usually cut by hand, in processes similar to this. An article called 'The New Patients', draws attention to this fact. The author describes how, “it appears… to be a singular circumstance, that in a country famous for its attention to mechanical processes, [that] the teeth of ivory combs should be cut, one stroke after the other, by the human hand…” (New Patients 476). However, this began to change in 1796, when William Bundy was granted a patent for a machine he had designed. This new machine was a far more efficient way to make combs since the teeth did not need to be cut individually, and so this reduced the time spent making combs, in addition to making it a less labour-intensive process. The efficiency of the new machine is evident as the author describes how, “one side of the comb will... be cut in three quarters of a minute” (New Patients 476). However, since it was a new machine, there were problems with it. For instance, although the teeth of an ivory comb cut by the machine were “very uniform, and equal to the bent work done by hand… the cut seemed a little too wide” (New Patients 477). Additionally, the author notes other problems such as how the cutters on the machine may be worn down over the time. It will not be easy to repair these cutters, since any changes to them will affect how the teeth of the combs cut. The author notes, “for, if we suppose an error of one-thousandth of an inch, in grinding and callipering the cutters… this will make a difference of one-third of an inch… in a superfine comb” (New Patients 477). This was an attempt to modernise the process of making combs, which previously had always been made by hand, and so it seems unsurprising that there would be problems with the method.


Although combs seem to be an innocuous object, they provide a useful glimpse into how British society was changing in the late Eighteenth Century. Indeed, this new machine is one small example of the wider industrial revolution, which took hold in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century. The 'New Patients' article even describes how, “it is not difficult to find traces of attempts of this kind (designing a machine to cut combs) during the last forty years” (New Patients 476). Therefore, the creation of this machine provides an example of the profound changes taking place to the British economy at the time.


Use of combs


Combs were associated with not just practical uses of keeping hair tidy, but also used for fashion and beauty purposes. In the Eighteenth Century, it was fashionable to dress hair in large and elaborate styles, which required the use of combs and other tools. Combs were a key tool to achieve the hairstyles, as is shown in the instructional manual, A Treatise on the Hair, in which hairdresser Peter Gilchrist describes how to achieve a variety of different hairstyles. For instance, he describes the “broad plait” (Gilchrist 24), in which the hair is combed, divided into sections, and “smooth[ed]… without darting the teeth of the comb too far in the friz, then plait" (Gilchrist 24) the hair. Gilchirst also recommends how women could “dress the hair for riding” (Gilchrist 25) by combing the hair, sectioning it, then plaiting it and twisting it around the head (Gilchrist 25-26). The type of comb seems important here, with Gilchirst also commenting “If the hair is thin, the teeth should be short and thick; on the contrary, if the hair is thick, the teeth should be wide and long, and the bend of the comb be answerable to the round of the head” (Gilchrist 24). The creation of these manuals to help people style their hair suggests how popular these hairstyles were, and the constant references to combs within the manuals reflects how integral combs were in bringing the hairstyles about.


A comb would also be used to look after wigs and toupees (Stewart 5). For instance, Alexander Stewart in The Art of Hairdressing, or, The Gentlemen’s Director, instructs, “to dress the toupee with a loose curl, frise the hair down over the ear as low as it will admit or is necessary, and with the fine end of your comb drawn from under the hair from the top of the ear to the points” (Stewart 12). Here, it seems that the these elaborate hairstyles were not just favoured by women, but many men also followed suit.


Further examples regarding the way in which combs were used in the Eighteenth Century can be found in literature. For instance, in Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians discover Gulliver’s comb inside his pocket, alongside items such as his “silver snuff-box, [his] hand-kerchief and journal-book” (Swift 31). This highlights how combs were evidently very commonplace, since his comb was found in his pocket, alongside other ordinary items. The Lilliputians describe the comb as “a sort of engine, from the back of which were extended twenty long poles, resembling the pallisados before your majesty’s court: wherewith we conjecture the man-mountain combs his head” (Swift 29). This is an interesting moment since combs are obviously a very common object, but the Lilliputians have difficulty recognising it due to its sheer size in comparison to them. The way in which they describe it as being like a “pallisados” (Swift 29) suggests Swift's attempt to make a very ordinary item seem alien to the reader. This attempt to alienate the reader from such an everyday object can also be found when Gulliver tries to make his own comb, using “the strongest stumps of hair” (Swift 115) from the “suds” (Swift 115) of the King of Brobdingnag’s shave. Gulliver’s unusual way of making his own comb is clearly very different to the traditional methods of heating and sawing of ivory and tortoise-shell. Therefore, this once again could be an attempt to estrange the reader from a familiar object, whilst also highlighting how combs were obviously a necessity in everyday life, since Gulliver goes to such extreme measures to make his own comb. In this way, combs may have been used for elaborate, fashionable hairstyles, but they were still used for purely practical purposes by many people.


Nevertheless, In a 1764 Opera called, The Capricious Lovers, combs are once again shown to be used for beauty purposes. As Lisetta sings, 

To arch the brow, there lies the brush, 
   The comb to tinge the hair; 
Hence rise the wrinkled, old, and grey, 
   In freshest beauty strong; 
As Venus fair, as Flora gay, 
   As Hebe ever young.”


(Lloyd 10)


Here it seems that objects such as combs were viewed as having an almost magical effect of making their wearers appear younger and more beautiful. But there also seems to be a sense of deceit in using such beauty tools. For instance, in Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ a man named Strephon sneaks into his lover, Celia’s, room and is disgusted by what he finds. Strephon sees “various combs for various uses / Filled up with dirt so closely fixt, / No brush could force a way betwixt” (Swift). Strephon’s horror at seeing the dirt in Celia’s room and the number of filthy tools she uses when dressing reflects his very idealised attitude towards women and beauty standards. This highlights the attitude that women should look perfect naturally, without putting any effort into attaining the way they look. Strephon’s disgust also highlights the belief that using tools such as combs or brushes to create grand hairstyles, or wearing wearing makeup, was viewed as being ‘misleading’ or an attempt to 'deceive' men.



Combs and Colonialism


An important link between combs and colonialism is revealed in Alexander Pope’s poem ‘The Rape of the Lock’. The speaker describes a young woman sitting at her toilette. He says,


“Unnumber'd treasures ope at once, and here

The various off'rings of the world appear;

The tortoise here and elephant unite,

Transform'd to combs, the speckled and the white.”


(Pope 129-130, 133-136)


Here, Pope describes the combs on the woman’s toilette, which were made from tortoise-shell and ivory. In this way, the publication of 'The Rape of the Lock’ is a very telling example of the growth of commodity culture at the time, as a result of more and more items being imported from the British Empire. It is striking that something as inconsequential as a comb has links to the world at large. This is something the speaker of the poem reflects on, considering how all these items from completely different parts of the world are now lying together on a single toilette, and are used to make the woman look more beautiful. As the speaker notes, “Betty's prais'd for labours not her own” (Pope 148), which highlights how the comb and other items on her toilette are used without much consideration for the violence of the processes that were involved in bringing the items to her.


As mentioned previously, many combs, such as the one lying on Belinda’s toilette, were made from ivory which was imported in vast quantities from British colonies in West Africa. A great deal of information regarding imports of ivory into England can be found in contemporary newspapers, which list the arrival of ships into different ports and document their contents. For example, the Whitehall Evening Post describes how on October 17th 1786, “272 pieces of ivory” (Whitehall Evening Post) arrived on ships from different parts of the British Empire. This is just one example of a much larger import of ivory into England since Harvey Feinberg writes in Africans and Europeans in West Africa that “approximately 3,382, 848 pounds of ivory were imported into England between 1699 and 1725” (Feinberg 59). As such, combs had evident connections to colonialism, and the violence and brutality that colonialism perpetrated. This can be seen in a 1744 article called ‘The Case of the Royal African Company of England’. King Charles II gave the Royal African Company a charter for “buying and selling bartering and exchanging of for or with any Negroes, slaves, goods, wares, merchandise whatsoever” (The National Archives). Therefore, the Royal African Company was clearly founded on promoting the slave trade. Yet, the company was also involved in trading ivory, as can be seen in the 1744 article, in which they describe how “the coast of Africa produceth… ivory” (The Royal African Company). The article then later describes how “the coast produceth great quantities of negro servants, or slaves” (The Royal African Company). Clearly, the processes involved in bringing items such as ivory into England profited on slavery. In this way, just as the Royal African Company was trading ivory, it was also selling people into slavery. This therefore highlights the links between the combs that were being made in England and the wider brutality of colonialism.


Mermaids and Combs



(M.A Porny)


In Eighteenth Century literature, mermaids are often portrayed as comb-wielding nymphs. A striking example of this is in a poem published in St James’ Magazine called ‘Polypheme and Glaucia’. In this poem, a squire encounters a mermaid that holds “a tortoise comb” (Kenrick 172) in her right hand, and in her left, she is described as holding, “a glass – for ev’ry female’s vain” (Kenrick 172). In this way, there is a clear association of grooming with vanity. There also seems to be a very definite presence of the male gaze here, as the speaker asks, “what tongue can tell / The Blooming Beauties of this briny belle?” (Kenrick 172). The mermaid is clearly described in feminine terms, and the assumption that grooming is a sign of narcissism in women once again appears. Indeed, the speaker describes how the mermaid “smil’d, and reviewed the mirror as before; A thousand airs she practis’d like her sex” (Kenrick 172). Therefore, there seems to be a sense of danger regarding the mermaid, which perhaps also reflects the wider attitude of distrust towards women who were concerned with their appearance. The speaker notes the mermaid’s “siren sounds which charm’d his ears” (Kenrick 171). It seems as if the mermaid is luring the squire in, which once again reinforces the idea that women who care about their appearance are somehow deceitful or sly.


Mermaids often appear in heraldry and are once again depicted with a comb and mirror. An example of this can be seen in the photo above, labelled nine (Porny 193). M.A. Porny in The Elements of Heraldry, describes how the above coat of arms features, "gules, a mermaid proper, crined and finned or, holding in her right hand a mirror, and in her left a comb of the latter” (Porny 195). It is significant that a comb so often accompanies mermaids in heraldry, as it further reinforces this idea that attention to grooming and beauty was viewed as another dangerous tool to wield men, since mermaids were often portrayed as luring sailors into danger.






Primary Sources:


Bewick, Thomas, Mermaid print,  1788-1790, British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3545591&partId=1&searchText=mermaid+comb&from=ad&fromDate=1700&to=ad&toDate=1800&page=1. 

This source provides a useful example of the way in which mermaids were portrayed. The mermaid can be seen holding a mirror in one hand, and a comb in the other, which highlights how tools such as combs were associated with vanity.


“The Case of the Royal African company of England.” Royal African Company, 1744, 3 pp., Gale Primary Sources.

This article was published by The Royal African Company, and provided information on the company’s involvement in the slave trade, and detailed items that the company was importing into England such as ivory.


Comb. Late 18th Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Artsor, http://library.artstor.org.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/#/asset/SS7731421_7731421_11608460.

This source provides an example of a comb from the Eighteenth Century that was made from tortoise-shell. This is a very ornate comb, and would have perhaps been similar to the comb described in ‘The Rape of the Lock.’


Gilchrist, Peter. A Treatise on the Hair, 1770, London, 55 pp., Historical Texts.

This manual was published to teach women how to recreate the different hairstyles that were popular during the period. It provided useful information on what styles were fashionable, in addition to how combs were used to achieve these hairstyles.  


Kenrick, William. “Polypheme and Glaucia.” The St. James's magazine (London), 1762-1764, 402 pp., Historical Texts.

This poem featured the common trope of a mermaid holding a comb in one hand, and a mirror in the other. This therefore further highlighted how items such as combs were associated with vanity.


Lloyd, Robert. The Capricious Lovers, 1765, London, 31 pp., Proquest Literature Online.

This opera provided an interesting insight into beauty standards at the time, and how combs and other brushes were used as a tool to keep women looking young.


Mortimer, Thomas. Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, 1766-67, London, pp. 578, Gale Primary Sources.

This dictionary provided very useful information on the different methods used to make ivory and horn combs, prior to the manufacture of combs.


“The New Patents.” Monthly magazine, and British register, Dec. 1797, pp. 476-477. Proquest.

This article provided a detailed account of the invention of a machine that can cut combs. The author describes the benefits and problems of using this machine, and compares it with the previous methods of cutting combs by hand.


Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and other poems, January 2006, Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9800/9800-h/9800-h.htm#section1.

This poem featured an interesting description of the ivory and tortoise-shell combs on a woman’s toilette, which further provided insight into the connection between colonialism and commodity culture.


Porny, M.A. The Elements of Heraldry. London, 1795, pp. 405, Historical Texts.

This source gave a detailed account of symbols in heraldry, including a description of the how mermaids were presented inheraldry. The book also provided an example of coat of arms that featured a mermaid holding a comb and mirror.


“Postcript.” Whitehall Evening Post (Whitehall), 14th-17th October 1786, pp. 4, 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

This local newspaper featured a section on the ships that had arrived in Liverpool and what they contained This provided a useful indication of the amount of ivory that was being imported into England.


Stewart, Alexander. “The Art of Hairdressing, or, Gentlemen’s Director.” 1788, London, pp. 14, Historical Texts.

This manual described different hairstyles that could be achieved using men’s wigs, which provided an interesting insight into male beauty standards.


Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Edited by Claude Rawson, Oxford World Classics, 2008, Oxford.

This novel highlighted that although combs were used to create elaborate hairstyles, they were still typically used for practical purposes.


---. ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room.’ 1732, Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50579/the-ladys-dressing-room.

Swift’s poem reflected attitudes towards beauty during the period, such as how women were expected to be beautiful, but criticised for any effort to maintain this beauty.  



Secondary Sources:


“Britain and the Trade.” The National Archives, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/africa_caribbean/britain_trade.htm.

This source provided useful background information on The Royal African Company, and how it was involved in the slave trade.


Feinberg, Harvey M. Africans and Europeans in West Africa: Elminans and Dutchmen on the Gold Coast during the Eighteenth Century. The American Philosophical Society, 1989.

This book considered colonialism in West Africa and provided information about the amount of ivory that was being imported into England.



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