Untangling the history of the Hot Comb and Black Beauty

By Chynna Trott, NMB Curatorial Intern

Collections | September 15, 2021

Reading time: 9 minutes

World Afro day is described by its founder Michelle De Leon, as “a global day of change, education, and celebration of Afro hair”. The relationship between black hair and Western standards of beauty is a long and complicated one. It is a relationship situated within a complex history and includes a variety of recognisable artefacts which can trigger shared stories and experiences.

Here at the Museum in the “Bermuda & the West Indies” exhibit, one artefact, a hot comb donated by the Caines family illustrates this and connects personal experiences and objects to larger social narratives which have plagued the black community since the days of enslavement.

Hot comb or straightening comb, on display in “Bermuda & the West Indies” exhibit First Floor, Commissioner’s House. Donated by Shurnett Caines.

My relationship with the hot comb and my own hair began early in my childhood. Like most black women, my mom did my hair every Sunday for the week; from intricate braids and twists to everything in between. My hair was so thick and long that it got to the point where my mom was unable to handle it on her own and so my relationship with the hot comb and chemical straighteners began.

I vividly remember my first trip to the salon to get a chemical straightener and I can still smell the putrid smell of the texturizer that was put in my hair. The smell of burnt hair as the hairstylist ran the hot comb through my now loosened and blown out curls is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Something I’ll also never forget is my first hot comb burn; an incident that still makes me flinch every time I feel heat anywhere around my ears.

After the treatment, I remember running my fingers through my straightened hair and being told my hair was so pretty and I was so pretty because my hair was straight. Hearing that instilled in me a narrative that straight hair was pretty and my curly hair was something that needed to be “done”. I am not an anomaly, in fact, this narrative was the norm for the black community for a very long time.


The relationship between black women and their hair is steeped in a long and sometimes painful history. The concept of good versus bad hair is something that continues to plague the community and it ultimately stems from comparing ourselves as black women to white beauty standards. “Good hair” is silky, straight, and without tangles, and “Bad hair” is nappy, kinky hair.

To straighten your hair was often seen as a rite of passage into womanhood for many young black women. It was a way of assimilating into society and securing personal, social, and economic success. Oftentimes labeled “unprofessional”, natural hair was seen as something to hide if you wanted to secure a stable income. This narrative was established during slavery when African American women had to hide their hair while they worked the fields. The back-breaking work forced upon enslaved women meant they had no time or energy to do their hair nor did they have access to commercial products and often had to create their own.

Natural hair was often described as “wool” and enslaved women found ways to cover their hair, with some women wearing wigs that replicated the hair textures of their enslaver to accommodate white beauty standards.

Pictured is Ollie Tucker with her hair covered. Credited to the Bermuda Archives

Black beauty was seen as the “other” in comparison to white beauty standards and and the latter continued to have a hold on the black community well into the 20th century. It prompted the development of smoothing creams, perms and the electric hot comb and provided black women an opportunity to establish their own companies and gain financial freedom and independence.

Advertisement for straightening products, Fame Magazine, June 1962

Prior to 1900, most hair products had been marketed towards white women and very few catered to black hair. But three women sought to change that, starting with Annie Turnbo Malone. In 1900, Annie began to create her own hair treatments and called them Poro. She, and her team of agents, sold them door to door, similar to traveling salesmen.

Annie Turnbo Malone

One of Annie’s agents, Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Davis, suffered from dandruff and balding and blamed it on the harsh chemicals used in shampoos and hair styling products available back then. After moving to Denver from St. Louis, Sarah began to develop her own treatments in 1905. She then opened her own business and rebranded herself as Madame C.J. Walker. Her homemade line of hair products was so successful she became the first black woman millionaire in America and her story would go on to inspire the recent Netflix program Self Made, starring Octavia Butler.

Sarah Breedlove McWilliams

Another pioneer in the black cosmetics industry was Sara Spencer Washington. Sara opened a small beauty salon in 1913 in New Jersey after defying her parent’s wish that she become a school teacher. After recognizing that there was a market opportunity in cosmetics targeted towards black women, she opened Apex News and Hair Company in 1919. Apex sold everything from hot combs to lipstick and perfumes and regularly advertised black beauty and African American culture in the 1920s, to a degree not previously seen.

Sara Spencer Washington

All three women also encouraged the education of other black women in black cosmetics and hair care and opened multiple schools across the United States. Annie set up a training institute called Poro College in 1917, Madame C.J. Walker set up Lelia College, named after her daughter, and Sara established Apex Beauty Culture School.

Diploma from Leilia College

These colleges provided black women training and a stable income facilitating financial freedom and independence, something that was rare previously.

The rise of highly trained beauticians also provided a means for other black women to pursue a beauty aesthetic that was deemed “respectable” and allowed for more opportunities for employment. Discrimination based on European beauty standards was prevalent and became an obstacle one had to navigate. In Bermuda, anecdotal evidence suggests that this discrimination was experienced when looking for employment in local banks with lighter-skinned women with straighter hair textures more likely to be hired as bank tellers in the 1960s.

There was also a discriminatory practice known as the pencil test, a method used to determine a person’s race. A pencil was pushed into a person’s hair and if it passed through the hair easily or dropped to the floor the person “passed the test” if it stuck they “failed”. In the UK this method was used to assess whether a person was able to enter an establishment where only whites were allowed and in South Africa, it was used during the Apartheid to determine racial identity.

The civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s prompted a shift in attitude towards black hair and black cosmetics. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” began to be splashed across American newspaper headlines and the difficulties black women faced trying to adhere to white European beauty standards were made known.

Activist Assata Shakur says that for centuries black skin had been disparaged and that to be black or be described as black was deeply insulting. She stated that black women and girls “had never heard the words ‘Black is Beautiful’ and the idea had never occurred to most of us”.

Most black women were taught that they had to make great sacrifices to be considered beautiful whether it be chemically straightening their hair causing chemical burns and hair fallout, or painfully bleaching their skin in hopes of becoming a lighter skin tone.

This shift in mindset saw a call for the celebration of black beauty and aimed to redefine beauty standards within the black community. The movement “Black is beautiful” was brief and often viewed as a political tool to fight racism, and although it did help change how darker skin was viewed it did not fully liberate black women from the beauty ideals society subjected them to.

It would take another thirty years for another shift to take place in the 1990s when black women started to become more involved in the beauty industry along with the popularization of black culture. During this period, there was a call to return to natural hair styling through box braids and protective hairstyles and brought together a community of black women dedicated to natural hair.

The natural hair community had gone through changes throughout the past few decades alongside cultural shifts in wider society. Non-natural hairstyles on black women were demonized by some who believe that if you had wigs, sew-in weaves, and chemically processed hair, you were denying your blackness and what made you unique.

With the new movement came new products made specifically for natural hair. But this polarizing mindset was also dangerous and divisive and created a split in the black community, which leads us to today. From my perspective, the community is somewhere in the middle of previous polar opposite mindsets. Attitudes are slowly changing and many now advocate for an inclusive mindset that accepts black beauty in all its forms. It doesn’t matter what you do with your hair as long as it’s healthy and young black girls understand that they don’t have to conform to a white European beauty standard.

My own journey with my hair has been long and complicated. I chemically straightened my hair religiously all the way until university. It wasn’t until a hair texturizer went wrong that I finally decided to cut all of my hair off and go natural. Learning to take care of natural curls is a long and expensive process that many don’t have the time or money for.

I must admit every time I have to detangle my hair cutting it all off again sounds like a great idea but I’m happy that I no longer allow white European beauty standards to influence how I view my hair. The relationship black women have with their hair is not something that anyone should take lightly. It’s a physical representation of the roots from which we are descended and it should continue to be celebrated.


“Do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.”

– Marcus Garvey

Objects can trigger memories and experiences but they also represent the historical context that created them. The next time you visit the Museum, I encourage you to find the hot comb on display in the West Indies and Bermuda exhibit in Commissioner’s House. When you find it, take a moment to reflect not only on any personal memories you may have but also the complex and nuanced narratives embedded within this everyday object and remember:


“There is no shame in black beauty”

– Lupita Nyong’o


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