Of the many different pests to plague humans head lice, in particular, have continued to be a persistent companion. A single louse egg, or nit, can lead to a full infestation of the scalp if not properly cared for. As such infestations pass through contact and risk developing into epidemics such as typhus, preventative hygienic methods have been practiced by people all over the world for centuries. The earliest method of dealing with these pesky blood-sucking parasites can still be seen today when observing monkeys as they groom companions, appropriately named nit-picking. The earliest humans must have done the same, though with time our hygienic tools have vastly improved.
First carved out of ebony, boxwood, bone, and hardwood, fine-tooth combs were used to literally comb through and separate lice and their nits from the scalp (Figure A). With long, narrow teeth the double-sided one piece (Figure B) or alternative single-sided composite combs (Figure C) historically were used by everyone from the common person up to the highest elite (White 2005: 104-105).
Though lice do not discriminate when selecting hosts, the material of historical combs differs greatly depending on social status. Some of the oldest comb artifacts, made from elaborately carved ebony and ivory, show the elite classes suffered from lice just as much as the masses, who utilized hardwood and later on metal combs for their durability (Figure D). Lead combs grew popular in the seventeenth century with the belief that the material would preserve the color of one’s hair (Lester and Oerke 2004:134).
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