Plastics have been described as "materials that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure or heat." In the twentieth century the move away from natural raw materials to synthetically produced plastics changed the way objects were produced, designed and used.
Before the arrival of synthetic resins natural plastics such as amber, horn, tortoiseshell, bitumen, shellac, gutta-percha and rubber were used to mould and manufacture artefacts. Horn was the most accessible of these for European's and as a result played an important role in the development of plastic products.
As it is prone to decay in the ground little is known of its pre-history but combs and carved vessels have been found in Egyptian graves that date back to 3000 BC. In Britain early use has been more difficult to appraise but by medieval times a 'Horners' guild had been set up which by the 1700s was centred in London.
Horn differs from ivory, (tusks, teeth and bone) as it is made up of the keratinous hard tissue which also creates claws, hooves, hair and baleen in whales. The most frequently used of these by early European manufacturing industries were horn and baleen. Horn is found on artiodactyls (even toes ungulates) and is not to be confused with antlers which are the direct outgrowth of bone.
Horn grows around a bony core that needs to be separated before it can be worked and the most common way of doing this was to leave the severed horns in water and allow the connecting membrane to rot. As a result the horn trade was not for the faint hearted and in the 1700s the smell of rotting horn was offensive enough to ensure 'Horners' resided outside the city walls.
In the 1600s London 'Horners' began to export worked and un-worked horn from America, India, and America to Europe. Much of this horn was split into thin layers or leaves which were used as windows in lanterns or lant-horns as they were originally known. Horn was also used to make combs: buttons, fans, drinking horns, powder horns, window panes, and jewellery.
It was a popular raw material because it could be heated and moulded into a range of products as well as carved and dyed. Moulded products were faster and more economical to produce than carved ones. For this reason of horn was pivotal to the later development of plastics in Europe as the methods used to shape horn and tortoiseshell were adapted in the search for more synthetic products.
Combs were one of the most popular uses for horn and in earlier times were also made from bone, wood, antler, ivory and iron. The different materials catered for a range of people, and prices, and were valued enough in some cases to be included amongst burial goods. Comb makers guilds were formed in Europe in the 1200s where the craft flourished. The traditional process of making a comb was labour intensive as it involved cutting the teeth with a special saw known as a 'stadda' and then hand carving and polishing the finished product. This process was greatly speeded up when in October 1797 Mr. Bundy took out the first patent for a comb-making machine. It consisted of a number of circular saws on a mandrel with the comb-blank being mounted on a carriage and pushed into the saws by means of a screw.
Horn combs were generally more expensive than those made from bone and by the nineteenth century comb manufacturers were dealing with large wholesale orders. In 1833 the Ordinance Office in England placed an order for 8,000 combs to be shipped to the convict settlements in Australia.
By the middle of the nineteenth century horn was still relatively easy to come by in Europe but other products such as tortoiseshell and ivory were becoming expensive. This led to the staining of ox-horn objects to look as if were made from tortoiseshell.
In the 1660s it became fashionable to wear a comb in a chignon or false hairpiece. These 'braid' or 'back-combs' served an ornamental rather than a practical purpose and were often elaborately decorated. The top part of the comb was perforated and impressed with flowers, scrolls, or sometimes decorative panels depicting animals. These designs changed according to the fashions of the day but the decorations became heavier in the Victoria period, although the English preferred simpler styles to those on the continent.
This 'back-comb' is made from stained ox-horn and is one of 12 purchased for the original 'Technological Museum' collections in 1883. These combs were acquired for the museum by P. Simmonds during his stay in London and were all manufactured by Stewart and Co. in Aberdeen, Scotland. On receipt of the horn and bone collections J. H. Maiden, curator at the museum wrote, "I have no doubt the horn and bone collection will prove of much educational value." Used initially to illustrate the uses and staining of horn these combs are now also significant in for their relevance to mid-Victorian style and design.
MacGregor, A., 'Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman period', Barnes and Noble Books, New Jersey, 1985.
Knight, E., H., (ed), 'Knights American Mechanical Dictionary', Vol 1, J.B. Ford and Company, New York, 1874
Schaverien, A., 'Horn, its History and its Uses', Everbest Printing Co., 2006
Mossman, S., (ed.), Early Plastics; perspectives, 1850-1950, Leicester University Press, London, 1997
Mossman, S., Morris, P. J. T., (eds.), 'The Development of Plastics', Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1993
Geoff Barker, March, 2007