A hot comb (also known as a straightening comb) is a metal comb that is used to straighten moderate or coarse hair and create a smoother hair texture. A hot comb is heated and used to straighten the hair from the roots. It can be placed directly on the source of heat or it may be electrically heated.
Parisian Francois Marcel Grateau is said to have revolutionized hair styling when he invented and introduced heated irons to curl and wave his customers' hair in France in 1872. His Marcel Wave remained fashionable for many decades. Britain's Science and Society Library credits L. Pelleray of Paris with manufacturing the heated irons in the 1870s. An example of an 1890s version of Pelleray's curling iron is housed at the Chudnow Museum in Milwaukee.
It is uncertain who invented and manufactured the first hot comb or heated metal straightening comb in America. Sometimes the device is called a "pressing comb." During the late 19th century, Dr. Scott's Electric Curler was advertised in several publications including the 1886 Bloomingdale's catalog and in the June 1889 issue of Lippincott's Magazine Marketed to men to groom beards and moustaches, the rosewood-handled device also promised women the ability to imitate the "loose and fluffy" hairstyles of actress Lillie Langtry and opera singer Adelina Patti, popular white entertainers of the era.
Mme. Baum's Hair Emporium, a store on Eighth Avenue in New York with a large black female clientele, advertised Mme. Baum's "entirely new and improved" straightening comb in 1912. In May and June 1914, other Mme. Baum advertisements claimed that she now had a "shampoo dryer and hair straightening comb," said to have been patented on April 1, 1914. U.S. Patent 1,096,666 for a heated "hair drying" comb -- but not a hair straightening comb --is credited to Emilia Baum and was granted on May 12, 1914.
In May 1915, the Humania Hair Company of New York marketed a "straightening comb made of solid brass" for 89 cents. That same month, Wolf Brothers of Indianapolis advertised its hair straightening comb and alcohol heater comb for $1.00. The La Creole Company of Louisville claimed to have invented a self-heating comb that required no external flame. In September 1915, J. E. Laing, owner of Laing's Hair Dressing Parlor in Kansas City, Kansas claimed to have invented the "king of all straighteners" with a 3/4 inch wide, 9 1/2 inches long comb that also had a reversible handle to accommodate use with either the left or right hand. Indol Laboratories, owned by Bernia Austin in Harlem, offered a steel magnetic comb for $5.00 in November 1916.
Walter Sammons of Philadelphia filed an application for Patent No. 1,362,823 on April 9, 1920. The patent was granted on December 21, 1920. Poro Company founder Annie Malone has been credited by some sources with receiving the first patent for this tool in that same year but the Official Gazette of the U. S. Patent Office does not list her as a holder of a hot comb patent in 1920. The Patent Office Gazette of May 16, 1922, however, includes Annie M. Malone of St. Louis in a list of patentees of designs as being granted Patent No. 60,962 for "sealing tape," which Chajuana V. Trawick describes in a December 2011 doctoral dissertation as an ornamental tape used to "secure the closure of the box lid of Poro products" to prevent others from selling products in packages made to look like Poro products. Hair care entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker never claimed to have invented the hot comb, though often has been inaccurately credited with the invention and with modifying the spacing of the teeth, but there is no evidence or documentation to support that assertion. During the 1910s, Walker obtained her combs from different suppliers, including Louisa B. Cason of Cincinnati, Ohio, who eventually filed patent application 1,413,255 on February 17, 1921 for a comb Cason had developed some years earlier. The patent was granted on April 18, 1922 though Cason had been producing the combs for many years without a patent.
After slavery the hot comb was a very controversial invention because many debated on whether it was beneficial or hurtful to the black community. There were some African Americans who believed that the hot comb damaged the African-American community because it made the community submissive to the 'white ideal image' of beauty and disregarded African-American culture. Others believed that efforts like hair straightening would boost their social and economic status. This dilemma continued and progressed throughout the 20th century.
Today, hot combs are still used by many African-American beauticians and families as an alternative to chemical hair straightening. Many African American and women of other races, still utilize hot combs because this form of straightening is temporary and less damaging to the hair if done properly.
It is not uncommon, especially when using a traditional hot comb, to burn and damage hair. A hot comb is often heated to over 65 degrees celsius, therefore if not careful severe burns and scarring can occur. Hot comb alopecia and follicular degeneration syndrome are irreversible alopecia of the scalp that was believed to occur in people who straighten their hair with hot combs, but this idea was later debunked.
In 1992, a hot comb alopecia study was conducted, and it was discovered that there was a poor correlation between the usage of a hot comb and the onset and progression of disease. The study concludes that the term follicular degeneration syndrome (FDS) is proposed for this clinically and histologically distinct form of scarring alopecia.
- Byrd, Ayana D., Tharps, Lori L. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2001
- The Black Inventor Online Museum, Blackinventor.com
- Philip LoPresti, MD; Christopher M. Papa, MD; Albert M. Kligman, MD, PhD.”Hot Comb Alopecia” Arch Dermatol. 1968; 98(3):234-238.
- LTC Leonard C. Sperling, MC; COL Purnima Sau, MC, “The Follicular Degeneration Syndrome in Black Patients: ‘Hot Comb Alopecia’ Revisited and Revised” Archives of Dermatology. 1992;128(1):68-74.
- Patton, Tracy Owens. “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair? African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair.” NWSA Journal 18, no 2 (2006): 24-51.
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- Djanie, Akua. “The Black Woman and the Beauty Myth” New Africa 488 (October 2009): 60-61.
- Akbari, Lisa. A Black Woman’s Guide to Beautiful Hair: A Positive Approach to Managing Any Hair Type or Style. Illinois: Sourcebooks. Inc, 2002.
- Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: Beauty Culture and African American Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
- Science and Society Picture Library, 
- "What is a Hot Comb?". WiseGeek. Retrieved 2012-05-24.
- "What is a Hot Comb?". WiseGeek. Retrieved 2012-05-24.
- Byrd, Ayana D., Tharps, Lori L. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2001 p. 20
- "Pelleray". ScienceandSociety. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
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- Nancy Villa Bryk Bloomingdale's Illustrated 1886 Catalog. New York: Dover Publications. 1988 p. 152
- Lippincott's Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, Volume 43, June 1889 p. 971
- New York Age, February 1, 1912, page 8
- New York Age, June 25, 1914, page 8
- Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, May 12, 1914, Volume 202
- Kansas City Sun, May 15, 1915
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- New York Age, May 20, 1915
- Kansas City Sun, September 25, 1915
- New York Age, November 23, 1916, page 2
- "Sammons Patent" (PDF). BlackTechReport. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
- The Black Inventor Online Museum, Blackinventor.com (broken link)
- Chajuana V. Trawick. Annie Malone and Poro College: Building an Empire of Beauty in St. Louis, Missouri from 1915 to 1930. Ph.D. dissertation University of Missouri, December 2011
- A'Lelia Bundles On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker Scribner/Lisa Drew, 2001
- Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, April 18, 1922 page 492 and page ii
- Philip LoPresti, MD; Christopher M. Papa, MD; Albert M. Kligman, MD, PhD.”Hot Comb Alopecia” Arch Dermatol. 1968; 98(3)p 234
- LTC Leonard C. Sperling, MC; COL Purnima Sau, MC, “The Follicular Degeneration Syndrome in Black Patients: ‘Hot Comb Alopecia’ Revisited and Revised” Archives of Dermatology. 1992;128(1) p68