The afro comb has long been associated with the 1970s, the accessory of a hairstyle that represented counter culture and civil rights during an important era for both. These days it makes a regular appearance on mainstream TV in America – the Roots drummer Questlove is fond of wearing one while performing as part of the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Nearly 50 years ago, the afro comb was worn in the hair not only as an adornment, but also as a political emblem and a signature of a collective identity. It was recognised as a way of saying no to oppression. Wearing the comb led to a kind of comradeship amongst those whose hair grows up and out, not down.
Previously, the Afro comb wasn’t very visible. And for this reason it has been assumed that the afro comb was invented in the 1970s. But a new exhibition blows that myth out the water. The afro comb dates back to ancient Egypt. The oldest comb from the collection is 5,500 years old.
The hundreds of combs on display show that over time the style hasn’t changed. The comb, sometimes called a pick, is commonly upright with long teeth. Sometimes a motif decorates the top. In ancient times it often referenced cultural belonging, and there are artifacts showing how people wore the comb in the hair. Time marches on and culture is always in transition. But perhaps not at the speed we assume.
The black fist Afro comb is an evocative symbol of the second half of the twentieth century. Coming into production at some point in the 1970s, the comb’s marriage of object and iconography was a perfect one.
With its reference to the Black Power movement, and its historical links to the re-emergence of the popularity of the wider-toothed hair pick in the USA to serve the Afro hairstyle, , the comb has become more than simply representative of an era and a political affiliation. It also symbolises Black pride and identity.
During this period many African Americans sought to reaffirm their cultural identity by not straightening their hair to follow mainstream European fashions.
The traditional ‘Afro’, which first emerged in the 1950s, is a style not a natural phenomenon: the hair needs to be cut in a certain way and maintained with a pik or comb.
Because many types of African hair are tightly curled or coiled, a wider- toothed comb is a healthier way of grooming combing through the hair. For those who chose to grow their hair in an unprocessed state, the longer teeth of the pik were perfect for maintaining an Afro hairstyle.
The earliest comb of this form to emerge was patented in 1969 by two African Americans, Samuel H. Bundles Jr., and Henry M. Childrey (Tulloch).
It was not long before variations of this useful new tool began to emerge and be patented. This included the folding comb, the patent for which was filed in 1970 and granted in 1971 (fig. 1).
This particular design was demonised by some sectors of British society in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Participants in the Origins of the Afro Comb project recall being stopped and searched by the police and having their combs confiscated because they were viewed as potential weapons.
The original black fist comb
The original black fist comb, shown was designed by Anthony R. Romani in 1972; The comb, known as a ‘styling pik’ was submitted to the US Patent Office in 1974 and the patent was granted in 1976 (fig. 3 below).
This iconic comb represents the ethos of the civil rights movement, with the power of the clenched fist and the peace sign in the centre. For subsequent generations the comb has a range of meanings.
Whenever I met someone who had a black fist comb I asked what it meant to him or her. Answers have ranged from: ‘Black Power’; ‘Black pride’; ‘Nelson Mandela’s release’;‘ it’s just a nice shape’; and ‘unity’.
For younger generations the combs also seem to take on a sense of the retro or ‘old skool’.
It is perhaps the comb’s multiple associations that have ensured its success across generational divides and time.
Whereas some of the young people I spoke to were not aware of the details of the American Black Power movement, their own associations with the design were nonetheless linked to ‘Black’ culture and identity.