Sunday, September 19, 1999

Collection shows flare for hair care, The Ann Arbor News

Collection shows flare for hair care
By Pamela Appea
The Ann Arbor News

Pittsfield Township—For Mary Bachman, there’s nothing better than a fine-tooted comb.

“Fine” as in “antique,” that is.

And the longtime Pittsfield Township resident scours antique shows with a fine-toothed comb, much like the ones she’s trying to find.

Over the past several years, Bachman has collected more than 450 antique, decorative and functional combs and hairpins from England, Japan, Ghana and every region of the United States.

“I wanted to collect something that was colorful and decorative,” Bachman said about her passion for the hair care tools.

Set up in several display cases and mounted on the wall in her home, Bachman’s combs show unique colors and designs, including a crocodile comb, a fertility doll comb and Chinese combs with pagodas carefully etched into the design on the upper part of the comb.

Her comb collecting came by accident. After her husband, Lee, retired from teaching, she accompanied him to antique shows. In 1986, at a Saline-area antique show, she spotted her first prize—a celluloid comb that she bought for about $30.

“I guess that’s how I caught the bug,” she said. Bachman’s self-described comb “obsession” just took off.

She has since collected dozens more celluloid combs, several ivory combs with “French jet” black glass and wooden combs. Bachman even wrote the book on comb collecting last year, “The Collectors Guide to Hair Combs: Identification and Values.”

Her passion for comb collecting shows in her knowledge of the hair tool’s rich history, something Bachman said most people don’t know.

In prehistoric times, people used their hands to groom their hair. Then came what she called “crude” combs made from animal bones. Over time, people began to carve detailed and distinctive designs and patterns in their combs.

Some unique materials people used to make combs included tortoise shells, steer horns and bamboo shoots.

She explained that around the turn of the century, comb makers boiled steer horns to soften them and fashion them into combs. They would often dye the horn to make it look like amber or tortoise shell, both of which were popular but harder to get.

“It was really a nasty, smelly process and … I can’t imagine how they came up with the idea,” she said.

From the mid-19th century, celluloid combs were popular and easy to produce in different colors and sizes, Bachman explained.

However, celluloid decorative combs, which many women used for fancy upswept chignon hairstyles such as the French twist, became less popular until comb makers stopped making them entirely. One reason, Bachman theorized, was “probably” because women began bobbing their hair, a fashion trend of the1920s.

Celluloid combs also posed somewhat of a safety hazard, because they were highly flammable, thus comb makers began looking for other materials to work with.

Bachman, 76, an artist, had previously collected various antique items, but nothing had held her interest for too long. Antique combs, however, were easy to get and to keep, “since they didn’t take up too much room,” she said.

A second-term president of The Antique Comb Collectors Club, an organization that boasts several international members, Bachman believes the fun in comb collecting comes in stages.

“Fifty percent of the enjoying is getting the combs—the pursuit—then 25 percent is from researching the comb and figuring out if you got a good deal—and 25 percent , a good deal of my enjoyment—for all of my comb collection—is sharing with other people,” she said.

Bachman recently found her oldest and most valuable comb, a small French comb from the 10th century A.D. The 2-to3-inch ivory comb is a simple design and fairly sturdy. Ivory combs were made most often from elephant tusks.

She said ivory combs are “quite difficult” for antique comb collectors to come by because of the undesirability of using elephant tusks.

Bachman says she has made a “significant investment” in her entire comb collection.

Still when a “plain” Martha Washington comb was on sale earlier this year for $4,000 dollars, Bachman probably wouldn’t have purchased it has she about it.

“I do have my limited,” she said with a laugh.

Originally Published Sunday, September 19, 1999

Photo Caption: Mary Bachman has a collection of 450 combs, including two from Ghana below. Photographer Leisa Thompson-The Ann Arbor News