12. A Celluloid Comb

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

In the late nineteenth century, celluloid combs were all the rage. ‘Few women consider their hair properly dressed nowadays unless they have at least three combs’, declared one newspaper in 1900.[1] An artificial thermoplastic first registered in 1870, celluloid’s easily mouldable nature made it a cheap replacement for more expensive materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell. However, as the same article went on to advise, ‘it is wiser to save up one’s money for the purchase of real tortoiseshell than to trust the cheap and perilous celluloid.’[2]

Almost as soon as celluloid combs began to be produced, stories abounded about the disastrous results. In 1898, reports of a ‘little Paris girl’ who sat too close to the fire made it into several British newspapers. ‘The burning point of celluloid is about 180 deg.,’ explained the North-Eastern Daily Gazette, ‘and the comb had attained that heat as it was before the fire.’[3] A writer in the Newcastle Weekly Courant revealed ‘a similar accident befell me some two years back’, and warned of the danger in buying celluloid products.[4] The Penny Illustrated Paper received a letter from a reader the following year, who wrote,

At present I am confined to my house by a severe burn caused by the sudden ignition of a celluloid comb in my head. The inflammable stuff took fire solely from the heat, no spark having touched it.[5]

So please, enjoy the celluloid comb in this year’s Doing History in Public advent calendar – just don’t sit too close to any roaring Christmas fires.



[1] ‘The World of Women’, The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Standard, 18 December 1900, p. 2.

[2] ‘The World of Women’, p. 2.

[3] ‘CHIPS’, The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 7 October 1898.

[4] ‘Our Home Circle’, The Newcastle Weekly Courant, 8 January 1898, p. 5.

[5] Marguerite, ‘Multiple News Items’, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 18 February 1899, p. 108.

Image: Comb, Wikipedia Commons.


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