The Mystery of the Mane Comb… SOLVED!

A little more than a year ago we published a blog post highlighting a horse’s mane comb excavated years ago at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm. Though the rusty iron mane comb was incomplete, a lone, decorative “G” located along the top of the comb hinted at a longer name we hoped might be “G.[eorge] Washington.”

Mane comb excavated at Ff

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Fortunately, two outside sources soon came to our attention that confirmed our suspicions. A reader of the blog sent a note disclosing his family has a mane comb very similar to ours.  This comb is more complete than ours but more importantly, it has “G.Washing” inset above the teeth!

Blog reader's family mane comb

Blog reader’s family mane comb.

A second source turned up in an online auction in which a horse mane comb was listed for sale with other early 19th century items.  This comb is a wonderfully complete specimen with “G. WASHINGTON” clearly inset with hollow cut lettering in the upper section of the comb above the teeth.

Complete mane comb

Mane comb in an online auction listing. Credit: LiveAuctioneers.com

Our blog reader was not sure how old his mane comb was, and the auction listed theirs as “Federal Period” (early 19th century).  All three examples have similar rope molded decoration along the upper edge of the comb and on the lettering, and only our comb has a slightly different spacing in front of the first letter.  Considering everything, we think that’s enough proof! “G.WASHINGTON” it is!

Washington memorabilia is ubiquitous, commemorating everything including his birth, his death, and his Revolutionary War and Presidential experiences.  Statues, medals, buttons, paintings, ribbons, and hundreds of other products have been made to honor our first president over the last 220 years since his death in 1799. It makes sense that these mane combs are part of that heritage, made as homage to his memory. Why there aren’t more of them out there, I don’t know. But I love the fact that one of these combs made its way back to the farm on the Rappahannock River where George grew up.  Ferry Farm is where he spent his formative years learning not only how to ride his horses, but  also developing those leadership skills he would need to one day lead the Continental Army and eventually the United States of America.

Judy Jobrack
Co-Field Director, Archaeology Lab Assistant

The Mystery of the Mane Comb

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, and other engine-driven devices, people of the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries used horses, mules, and other four-legged draft animals to transport themselves, pull their wagons and carriages, and help manage the chores of farm and rural life.

Just like the time and expense we currently spend on car, truck, and small engine maintenance to keep those running smoothly, an equal amount of attention is essential to keeping horses healthy, clean, and physically fit so that they can perform the tasks we ask of them. The process of grooming a horse not only improves the health of their skin, coat, hooves, mane, and tails but it also allows the groomer to notice any health issues or problems that aren’t apparent until seen up close.

A mane comb, an essential horse grooming tool, was excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from an early nineteenth-century context. This rusty iron alloy comb is incomplete, measuring two inches high with a broken width of 1 ¼ inches.  The finished width might have been between 3 and 4 inches.  What makes this find interesting is that there is a decorative “G” inset above the comb’s teeth.  This letter was obviously followed by others, but what the complete word or initials indicate is a complete mystery.  Was the word a favorite horse’s name or just the name of the comb maker?  Was it actually a person’s name? And, of course, if it is a person name, could it possibly be George Washington’s name?

Mane comb

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Mane combs are just one piece in any essential grooming kit for horses, which also includes curry combs, brushes, hoof picks, and grooming cloths.  The mane comb is used to comb out the tangles and remove debris from the mane and tail of horses.  It can be very simple and utilitarian in looks, similar to a common hair comb, or more ornate and decorative, such as this example that is stored on a leather backing. Our mane comb falls between these two extremes. It does not have an elaborative top but it is still decorated within the handle area with a swirled scroll, raised beading along the outer band, and the letter “G–”.

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A simple modern mane comb. Credit: MyEquineStore.com

original

A more ornate antique mane comb with decorative handle. Credit: Roger Jones & Co.

DRAWING OF COMB inked1

A drawing of the mane comb excavated at Ferry Farm clearly showing the decorative inset “G”.

Ferry Farm archaeologists are curating a number of artifacts related to animal husbandry, an assemblage dominated by utilitarian buckles. Such buckles may have been part of harnesses but these fasteners had many uses around a farm. Horseshoes are the next most frequently recovered item, and they date from throughout the 1800s and 1900s. A few are of a style of manufacture that reliably derives from the colonial era. Bits, stirrups, curb chains, and harness rings were also lost or discarded by their owners. A mid-1800s iron alloy brace for a saddle was also discovered. Ferry Farm archaeologists found evidence for mules as well, as our collection includes a few mule shoes. A few bolts for carriages or wagons were recovered. Perhaps our favorite animal husbandry objects are the brass ornaments used to embellish leather horse tack. Several of these have been recovered and all date from the colonial period, when these early New World equestrians relished showing off their fine steeds.

So if there are any horse-loving readers out there who recognize this style of mane comb or have a clue as to what “G” could be the start of, please let us know.  We may never know but we do hope that maybe the “G” is the beginning of the name of our site’s most famous horseman, George, who was certainly well known for his horsemanship skills!

Juby Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director

Show Horse: How Colonial Horse and Rider Looked Their Best

"Washington Before Yorktown" by Rembrandt Peale (1823) Public domain. Courtesy: The Athenaeum/Wikipedia

“Washington Before Yorktown” by Rembrandt Peale (1823) Public domain. Courtesy: The Athenaeum/Wikipedia

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts inspired by this year’s Summer Olympics. This week, it’s an equestrian-inspired post from Archaeologist Laura Galke, who briefly looks at some of the ornaments found on 18th century horse tack.

What an impressive sight the Washingtons made as they rode their horses with bridles and straps embellished with these shiny brass decorations.  Today, people who study these decorations refer to them as “mounts” or “leather ornaments.”  They were used to ornament the leather straps, nosebands, harnesses, and reins of horses. Individual riders enjoyed these, but they also could adorn steeds that pulled carriages.  About twenty of these ornaments have been found during recent excavations at Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm leather ornaments dating from the 1700s. The Harwoods, Strothers or the Washingtons may have purchased these.

Ferry Farm leather ornaments dating from the 1700s. The Harwoods, Strothers or the Washingtons may have purchased these.

Colonial Virginians, including George Washington, took pride in owning horses. Adorning their stallions with such flashy decorations attracted attention to their owners as they journeyed through the streets, on the ferries, and along the trails of Colonial Virginia and beyond.  It was also a great way to draw attention to a favorite steed or an elegant carriage in a public setting. Unlike household adornments – which were esteemed by an intimate circle of family, friends, and enslaved attendants – investments in these leather ornaments were appreciated by a wider audience as rider and horse proudly paraded about the colony and region.

This copper-alloy mount dates from the mid-to-late 1700s.

This copper-alloy mount dates from the mid-to-late 1700s.

In Colonial households, men typically purchased these showy trimmings. Indeed, they bought most things associated with the stable: horses or transportation.  Horse milliners were the source for such tack.  However, purchases related to the health of livestock, such as medicine, was the responsibility of women.

Copper naturally repels the bacteria that break down organic materials such as leather. These mid-to-late 1700s Washington family ornaments have actually preserved a small portion of the original leather straps they adorned.

Copper naturally repels the bacteria that break down organic materials such as leather. These mid-to-late 1700s Washington family ornaments have actually preserved a small portion of the original leather straps they adorned.

George Washington was an accomplished rider praised by Thomas Jefferson as “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”  Leather ornaments and mounts like those excavated at Ferry Farm helped to create that graceful appearance for George and all horse-loving Virginians.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Cofield, Sara Rivers
2008  A Preliminary Study of 17th– and 18th-Century Leather Ornaments from Maryland.  Maryland Archaeology 44(2):12-27.  Available online http://www.jefpat.org/research.html

Griffiths, Nick
2004  Harness Pendants and Associated Fittings.  In The Medieval Horse and its Equipment, c. 1150 – c. 1450, edited by John Clark, pp. 61-71.  The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

McBane, Susan
1992  The Illustrated Guide to Horse Tack.  David and Charles.  Milanostampa, Brunel House Newton Abbot Devon.

Noel Hume, Ivor
1991  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Vintage Books, New York.

Vickery, Amanda
2009  Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.  Yale University Press, New Haven.