Object: Hairbrush

North America: Plains
ca. 1890
Materials: Porcupine tail, wood, glass beads

Haircare has always been an important part of the daily human routine. Besides just maintaining a clean and healthy appearance, hairstyles can express individuality or identify an individual as part of a specific group. Changing your hairstyle can even make a difference in how you are perceived by others.  A different hair color could effect how old you look, and a different cut or style could make you seem either rebellious or old-fashioned. Pre-contact Native American tribes were no less conscious of hair care and styling that we are today, and they had nearly as many styling products. Hair was shined with animal fat, and was sometimes colored or decorated with colored clay. Some tribes even had techniques to lengthen their hair in a way similar to modern hair extensions or weaves. Certain hairstyles were more closely associated with one tribal group than others. For instance, men of the Kanien’kehake (Mohawk) tribe were known for shaving portions of their head, men of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe tended to prefer a pompadour style, while women of the Hopi tribe twisted their hair around circular bands to create a style that resembled butterfly wings on the side of their heads.

This object is a hairbrush made from the tail of a porcupine. It is made by sewing the bottom portion of the porcupine’s tail, where the quills tend to be smaller, around a wooden stick. The seam where the tail is sewn together is frequently decorated with glass beadwork. This type of hairbrush was common among many plains tribes. Porcupines are a type of plant eating rodent best known for their quills. The North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is the largest species of porcupine in the world. A porcupine may have as many as 30,000 quills on its body. The quills are a special type of hair with barbed tips on the ends. Quills are solid at the tip and base and hollow for most of the shaft. Porcupines use their quills for self defense but, can not “shoot” them at predators. Instead the quills simply detach easily from the porcupine’s body on contact, typically ending up in the mouth or claws of the attacker.  [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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