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 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–”.
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