The afro-pick and hair comb have been around for over 6,000 years. Throughout its rich history, the comb has come in a variety of forms by many cultures. These small everyday objects are at the epicenter of world culture and history. From tribal gifts to artifacts of cultural evolution to political symbols, the comb is more than just a grooming tool. The following sections highlight some key purposes picks and hair combs have served throughout history.
The earliest surviving hair combs were found in Ancient Sudan and Egypt (Kemet and Kush). The small size of these combs has led experts to believe they may have functioned as decorative objects. Additionally, the first combs were often found in cemeteries and tombs. Thus the combs could be smaller models for tools the individual user before they died. Many of the earliest combs were carved out of bone or hippopotamus ivory and had carved handles representing animal motifs.
Archaeologists and researchers found more hair combs beginning in 1550 BCE, a gap of 1300 years since the earliest found combs. As hairstyles and hair types changed, the picks and combs evolved. Double side combs and combs with smaller teeth emerged as prominent hair maintenance tools. As the Roman reign started in Egypt in 30 BCE, combs were manufactured for other Roman provinces and controlled territories. Then, beginning around 400 CE, Christianity and Islam morphed the cultural significance of the comb. Carpenters began making picks and combs, specifically made from wood, with intricate religious designs.
Hair combs have a long history of being traded, stolen, and gifted. Hair combs can mean very different things to people in other regions, particularly in Africa. For example: Among the Akan, hair combs are given to potential lovers or swapped at marriage ceremonies. However, if someone from the Yoruba sent you a comb, it would most likely mean they wanted to end their relationship with you.
As foreigners infiltrated African regions, individuals collected combs as gifts or stolen artifacts. Beginning in the 1800s CE, the collection of combs from conquers, missionaries, visitors, and museums highlighted the wide range of comb styles throughout history. Current generations can see the high levels of craftsmanship in part to this complex, and at times brutal, comb exchange.
In the late twentieth century, combs for African-type hair significantly re-emerged in the United States. Afro-picks became a hallmark of Black culture in the 1970s as a response to political and social unrest. New hairstyles, like the afro, also emerged to bolster the popularity of the comb. Inventors and investors quickly sought to profit from the comb. The US patent office issued 13 afro-comb designs, most notably the afro-pick. African Americans Samuel H. Bundles and Henry M. Childrey submitted the first-known patented comb design in the form of a rake comb. The new picks and combs utilized plastic to offer people inexpensively opportunities to buy them.
The afro-pick and hair comb has always been socially significant, however the ‘Black Fist’ pick might be the most recognized comb of all time. Created by Anthony R. Romani in 1972, the ‘Black Fist’ pick is a perfect symbol of the era of its conception. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act set the standard for racial revolution. Also in the 1960s, the Black is Beautiful movement was born to fight for equal rights and a positive perception of the African-American body. Then, during the medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem. These events and more paved the way for the Black Power movement, which endorsed racial pride and equity. The movement had core roots in African unity, which make the ‘Black Fist’ pick a perfect link from the past to the present.
As society continues to redefine beauty and mend racial atrocities, the afro-pick is unapologetically Black. The current era strives to find realness and truth amid deceit and halted progress. From protesting racial inequality in the criminal justice system to celebrating the Natural Hair movement, Black individuals are confronting their community’s systemic issues. Improvement cannot occur without speaking truth to power or avoiding the history that got us here. The afro-pick will always be at the symbolic intersection of what it means to be Black.
Ashton, S. (2013). 6,000 Years of African Combs. Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum
Chimbiri, K. N. (2013). Secrets of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Art and Culture. London: Golden Destiny Limited
Origins of the Afro Comb. (n.d.). In The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge website. Retrieved from https://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/afrocombs/
Yellow Section – Design based on Ivory comb, Egypt, about 4100-3000 BCE
Blue Section – Design based on Wood hair comb, purchased in Egypt, unknown provenance, before 1935 CE
Green Section – Design based on Wooden comb, Ashanti, Ghana, before 1935 CE
Fuchsia Section – Design based on Patent for a rake comb, no 217997, granted 1970 CE, US Patent Office.
Red Section – Design based on Plastic Black Fist comb, produced since 1972
Black Section – Design based on Yellow Fo’ Da Culture comb, designed by Chandler Johnson, 2019