Combs are one of our oldest tools, used by humans across cultures and ages for decoration, detangling, and delousing. They derive from the most fundamental human tool of all—the hand. And from the time that humans began using combs instead of their fingers, comb design has scarcely changed, prompting the satirical paper the Onion to publish a piece titled "Comb Technology: Why Is It So Far Behind the Razor and Toothbrush Fields?" The Stone Age craftsman who made the oldest known comb—a small four-toothed number carved from animal bone some eight thousand years ago—would have no trouble knowing what to do with the bright blue plastic version sitting on my bathroom counter.
For most of history, combs were made of almost any material humans had at hand, including bone, tortoiseshell, ivory, rubber, iron, tin, gold, silver, lead, reeds, wood, glass, porcelain, papier-mâché. But in the late nineteenth century, that panoply of possibilities began to fall away with the arrival of a totally new kind of material—celluloid, the first man-made plastic. Combs were among the first and most popular objects made of celluloid. And having crossed that material Rubicon, comb makers never went back. Ever since, combs generally have been made of one kind of plastic or another.
The story of the humble comb's makeover is part of the much larger story of how we ourselves have been transformed by plastics. Plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity. That new elasticity unfixed social boundaries as well. The arrival of these malleable and versatile materials gave producers the ability to create a treasure trove of new products while expanding opportunities for people of modest means to become consumers. Plastics held out the promise of a new material and cultural democracy. The comb, that most ancient of personal accessories, enabled anyone to keep that promise close.
Plastic was invented in 1907. At the time metal combs were very popular but had one big weakness, they were not very resistant to corrosion unless they were plated with Silver or Tin. These metals are expensive and the only people that could afford these items were royalty. When plastic was invented, the first items to be converted from a natural material was the comb we still use today. The material used for combs has been used for over 100 years at this point.
Stainless Steel was invented in 1913. The six years was just enough time to change consumers views and fill stores with plastic combs. The steel was not widely popular when it was first created and the first items created were forks, spoons, and butter knifes. This new material was resistant to water and had a polished finish. So polished and smooth that we allow it to glide along our mouths when consuming food. It's also safe to come in contact with the human body without being toxic. Due to the durability of stainless steel, it was not in the manufacturer's interest to create combs that would last a lifetime. Plastic combs break and need to be bought over and over again hence increasing profits to corporations. It's also cheaper to create, which means they can trick consumers into thinking they are getting a cheaper product. Over time the consumer ends up paying more since they have to buy combs over and over again. The invention of plastic prior to stainless steel was the perfect recipe for anyone that was creating combs at the time.
We now know today the benefits of a steel comb over a plastic one. The largest benefit is the environmental one. Stainless Steel combs last forever and are highly unlikely to find themselves in a landfill or ocean. Plastic combs are prone to wear and tear which eventually lead to teeth bending or breaking. Once teeth break in a comb, it's still useable but becomes an annoyance. The flexibility of plastic teeth also leads to snagging of the hair. When the teeth snag on the hair it ends up pulling hair out. In men that are aging, this can be detrimental to hair health since hair does not grow as fast and the hair follicle has to regenerate. Steel combs don't have that issue. The teeth are very sturdy and smooth which allows the teeth to pass through hair without pulling any out.