Hot combs are a common beauty tool that has styled hair for decades but masks a tangled history (pun intended) that led to its modern existence.
These extraordinary tools, also known as singeing combs, can completely transform any hair into glorious curls, silky straight strands, or perfect waves.
Birthed from the idea of a hot curling iron, this tool morphed over time into how we know it today with the help of many notable people—though this process didn’t come without rivalry in the black cosmetology community.
I untangle the history of these unique, heated combs here.
Table of Contents
- There are many people to credit the evolution of the metal comb to, even though we don’t know who the inventor was.
- The straightening comb was first marketed towards white people but later became a tool used heavily by black people for their textured hair.
- There was a heated competition between three women who raced to revolutionize the hot comb tool, skyrocketing black women’s success in the beauty industry.
The tool has evolved with no identified inventors. Although we could consider the device as an anonymous technology, we cannot deny the credit of some people who have popularized hot combs.
The Beginning of the Hot Combs
Francois Marcel Grateau , a Frenchman who invented the first hot curling iron back in 1872 (it resembled a pair of tongs that were used to create marcel waves), was the first to bring forward the idea of implementing heated conductors in hair tools.
After migrating to the USA, he changed his name to Woelffle and got a patent for his idea in 1905 before patenting its “electrical version” in 1918.
The electrified edition was more controlled and could produce longer-lasting waves without injuries.
George Augustus Scott, a US investor, was inspired by Woelffle’s work and sold the first electric comb in 1880.
The comb was part of a comprehensive line of beauty products that included curlers, crimpers, and corsets.
Even though Scott had marketed it as a beard curler for men, the ladies couldn’t resist using it because of the luscious curls it could spring to life.
This excitement from the ladies spread after an actress called Lillie Langtry used it to create her signature loose fluffs.
According to Scott, the products had healing properties besides their ostensibly aesthetic purposes.
What could be better than a tool that creates loose fluffs?
It’d be a tool that solves dandruff, neuralgia, and headaches too! That’s what he claimed it could do, anyway. The purported electrotherapy products were much sought after in those days.
But in reality, Scott’s devices hardly had anything to do with electricity (or dandruff). Neither did they plug into electric power outlets or even operate on batteries.
Instead, they ran on embedded magnets, indicating “magnetic.” By no means the tiny magnets produced the magical effects that Scott claimed they did.
The people of this time had to find a different solution to their dandruff.
The devices of Grateau and Scott, like every other beauty product in the USA at that time, were targeted at white consumers.
The number of hair care products suitable for African Americans’ natural hair was far-limited. Three women would soon race to alter that with the turn of the twentieth century.
They went on to build booming businesses, but one woman pulled ahead of the others, earning a massive fortune.
Evolution of the Hot Combs
The first of the three was Annie Turbo Malone . She started manufacturing hair-care treatments in the early 1900s under the trademark “Poro.”
She would walk door to door in the streets of St. Louis to sell her hair products. She also hired a group of saleswomen to assist her in the tedious work.
In 1917, she established Poro College, a training institute for educating women about black cosmetology.
The institute was wildly successful and later branched out to numerous cities worldwide.
Sarah McWilliams Davis (later called CJ Walker), who also lived in St. Louis around the same time, discovered Annie Malone’s hair care products.
She joined Poro College as a sales agent in the hope of finding a remedy for balding and dandruff, which she had been suffering from. After all, there was still a solution needing to be found for dandruff!
The hot combs would mostly run on a particular gas burner back then since the electrified version was still underdeveloped and not friendly for an average user.
When Sarah moved to Denver in 1905, she began to develop her formulas while continuing to work for the Poro.
A year later, she founded her own business under the pseudonym Madam C.J. Walker.
After two years, she relocated again to Pittsburgh to set up Leila College, a beauty school.
Her dedication was rewarded because she started making remarkable progress in developing an advanced edition of electrical hot combs.
Annie Malone learned about Sarah’s successes and began to write cautionary letters while running newspaper ads. Both of them pursued copyrights for the hair formulas.
Sara stuck to her guns and kept competing with Poro College, where she formerly worked.
Sara Spencer Washington was the third woman to promote African-American hair care. She opened a small shop for beauty goods and started marketing her line of hair products.
Spencer went door to door in Atlantic City to sell her goods before founding the Apex News and Hair Company in 1920.
Following the paths of Malone and Sarah Davis (aka Madam C.J. Walker), she also set up a beauty training school.
Her school found great success because eighteen years later, ten more had been erected across the USA and South Africa.
The three businesswomen, with their lines of products and techniques, had set up the threshold for the next generation of African-American women.
The Madam C.J. Walker method brought a fortune to Sarah Davis in the 1940s and 1950s, introducing a revolutionary electrically operated hot comb. However, the formulas of the other two fell significantly behind.
But they, too, became millionaires; hair-puller irons brought success for Malone and curling iron for Spencer.
Thus, Madam C.J. Walker started collecting applause, credited as the modern hot combs inventor. While she honorably disclaimed the credit of being the “inventor” of the tool, she did claim credit in a different regard.
Instead, Sarah Davis (aka Madam C.J. Walker) called herself the most successful entrepreneur because of her mass production of the hair tool.
Check out this video of a woman trying a hot comb:
What is a hot comb?
A hot comb is a tool that looks like a comb but is heated so that it can style hair differently than a traditional comb. The heated comb allows for a style to last longer and is particularly best at styling kinky hair.
How did the hot comb impact society?
The hot comb impacted society because it is a tool that revolutionized the way combs could style hair, especially those with African American hair that has had little development in previous years.
When was the first hot comb invented?
It is not certain when the first hot comb was invented, but we can assume it was the late 1800s that the heating tool was first introduced to society after Francois Marcel Grateau created hairstyling tools that were heated to straighten hair.
The history of the hot comb tool entails not just the history of a range of other hot tools but also the backstory of black women achieving their financial independence and autonomy through beauty industries—even if it took a little rivalry!
In an era when most of this black community struggled to find even the jobs like cleaning, serving, or washing, employment as beauticians commanded honor and esteem within the communities.
The tool could also be credited with allowing the natural hair of African Americans to be celebrated in the beauty industry, which deserves a revered remembrance.
The journey of the hot combs was perplexing, but now that I’ve untangled the history, we can all know this:
A single, common hair tool can change the course of history even if it doesn’t solve dandruff.
1. Who invented the Hot Comb? Inventions and Inventors for kids*** [Internet]. www.who-invented-the.technology. [cited 2022 Feb 3]. Available from: https://www.who-invented-the.technology/hot-comb.htm
2. Brooklyn Legends [Internet]. www.histarch.illinois.edu. Available from: http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/Brooklyn/HSOBI/AnnieMalone.htm