October 29, 2014

Hair Comb History Highlight #9 : Mourning Combs

French Jet and black Celluloid Mourning combs, 1880-1900

Today we interrupt your normally scheduled Closet Histories programming to bring you a Halloween appropriate Hair Comb Histories! As most are aware, the Victorians had a certain obsession with mourning. Though the trend for elaborate and long lasting mourning traditions had begun before queen Victoria, she is often credited with expanding the tradition after the death of her husband Albert in 1861. After a death, the family would go into a period of mourning. This effected their chosen aactivities(less fun was to be had) and how they would dress. The majority of mourning, clothing wise, was subjected to women it was expected were to have long periods of mourning wearing all black. First mourning required gowns of black matte crepe and bombazine silk, it was only in second mourning when other flashier black fabrics were allowed. Afterwards in half morning  mauve, grey, white and lavender were allowed. Sparkling jet combs like those above would not be proper until after both full and second mourning.

Each different role within a family would be mourned differently. A wife would be in full mourning for her husband for a year and one month, then this would be followed with six months of each second mourning and then half mourning for a total of around two years of widows weeds. A daughter would mourn one of her parents with six months of full mourning, four months of second mourning and finally two months of half-mourning. The rules went on for each relation and entire enterprises were set up to sell mourning fabrics and goods in a death obsessed age.

Two materials in particular define mourning combs, jet (or french jet which is glass not mineral) and vulcanite. Vulcanite (or Ebonite) was a hard vucanized rubber material, dark brown or black in color. Though Vulcanite could be polished to a certain level of sheen, it was no where near as shining as sparkling jet and was therefore more appropriate for first and second mourning. Other materials such as horn dyed black or celluloid were also used to make combs especially for mourning. Now lets look at some examples!

French Jet, 1870-1900

French jet, 1880-1900
Black celluloid and French jet comb, 1890-1910

Dyed horn, 1860-1880
Celluloid, late 19th-early 20th century
Vulcanite, 1870-1900
Vulcanite or Celluloid, late 19th-early 20th century
Vulcanite, 1851

With later combs, say art deco examples, black combs are much less likely to be mourning combs. By the turn of the century mourning practices were starting to wane, though they did not disappear entirely for a long while. Mourning was still observed, but for less time and with less rules. I should also not that even at its height, mourning was practiced mostly by the wealthy, as poorer people could not afford new black wardrobes and putting life on hold for up to two years.

Though these combs were intended for an extended period of sadness, they are really quite beautiful! I would love to add a mourning comb (or a few...) to my collection someday! I leave you all today with a comb that is certainly not a mourning comb, but would be fantastic for Halloween!


  1. That first vulcanite one looks like a monster with star eyes and lots of teeth! I love the sparkle of jet, and have some beads handed down through the family, but nothing spectacular. I could handle having one of these combs! Love the spider web one too :)

    1. I hadn't noticed how that comb has a face! I think it looks a bit like an owl now that you have pointed it out! I also would like to own one of these lovely combs, I'd love to get my hands on a spider web comb someday, just a much smaller one!


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