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Diana Carr
Holly Pearce Bisson with her collection of antique combs. |(Diana Carr Special to Town TImes.)

Antique combs are her passion


Holly Pearce Bisson loves the history behind the antique combs she collects. “I like to imagine the story behind them,” she said. “I can picture a woman dressed up in her ball gown, wearing one in her hair.”

Bisson, owner of Holly Locks hair salon, in Durham, started her collection when she was in high school. “I already knew I wanted to be a hairdresser. I wanted antique combs because they have to do with hairdressing, and I just like old combs. So I started going to flea markets and antique stores to find them,” she said.

Before barrettes and hairpins, women used hair combs to keep their hair up, she said. The oldest combs are the tortoise shell combs, dating back to the 1700s. Then came combs made from ivory, followed by black combs in the early 1800s. (Queen Victoria was in mourning then, and all women wore black, thus giving rise to the popularity of the black combs.) Plastic combs arrived on the scene in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by rhinestone combs. “The rhinestone combs were glittery,” Bisson said, “and were often worn by the flapper girls.” Next came our modern metal combs.

Her collection numbers about 50 combs, some of which are on display at her shop. She gets them by way of customers who give her combs that belonged to their ancestors, a neighbor who is an antique dealer who gave her combs for her birthday and Christmas, and by going to a flea market in Cape Cod every summer. While at the Cape last year she bought a pair of antique combs from a woman who told her she lived in Middlefield. “What are the odds?” Bisson said. “I had to go all the way to Cape Cod to get combs that are probably from Middlefield.”

Her collection includes combs made from tortoise shell, Ivory, celluloid (the first plastic that was invented), rhinestones, and the comb (called a peineta) used for a mantilla (a lace or silk veil or shawl worn over the head and shoulders, popular with Spanish women). She also has three antique hairstyling tools given to her by a customer-a metal hair crimper (which was warmed up first on a stove), a hot comb (used to straighten hair, it was also warmed up first on a stove), and a curling iron (which used electricity).

Customers have asked to buy her combs, but they are not for sale, although she has loaned them out a few times to bridesmaids. She herself does not wear the combs because they get very brittle when they get old. She learned this the hard way when she was wearing her great grandmother’s two antique rhinestone combs, and they fell out and were smashed. “Now I’m afraid to wear them,” she said.

Bisson said she is glad she began collecting when she did, as these days it is no easy matter. “When I started in high school, I got them for $8,” she said. “Now they’re $50. And they’re getting hard to find. I really have to look for them.”

Her favorite combs are the ones made from tortoise shell and Ivory. “It would probably be illegal today to make combs like these,” she said. “I would probably never be able to find them again.”



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