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Fried, Dyed, and Laid to the Side: Memories of the Hot Comb!

hot comb

Saturday mornings in my childhood were sometimes like something out of an Annie Lee or an Ernie Barnes painting. Like millions of other little black girls in the ’60s with curly, kinky, or coarse hair, this was the appointed time to have one’s hair “did.”

If your mom didn’t straighten your hair, Miss or Mrs. So-and-so next-door, across the street or across town would do it for less than $10. Or maybe you knew the woman who purported to have magic hands (that had the “touch” to make your hair grow). However, many black women supplemented their income by doing hair in the evenings and on Saturday mornings in their kitchens or basements; most were not licensed, but they could do some hair!

She wrapped a towel around your shoulders and bent your head over a kitchen sink for a washing with Prell Shampoo or Joy dishwashing liquid. If Joy cleaned your dishes with a lemony, citrus-scent, it did the same for your hair. Once your hair was patted dry and divided in sections, the scalp was greased with Royal Crown, My Knight, Sulfur-8, Dixie Peach, or Blue Magic.

My sister and I were strictly Dixie Peach grease girls and proud of it. Before the influx of the aforementioned products was available for black women, I have read where butter, Crisco, or lard was used for skin and hair, mostly as a way to straighten the hair. A few of my friends confided that when their mom had run out of hair grease, they simply used butter or lard. I didn’t say it aloud, but all I could think of was “oh, Lard!”

Meantime, the hot comb with the thick black handle would be lying in the blue gas flames on the stove.

The hot comb was first developed in France in the 19th century for French women with coarse or curly hair who wanted a super-straight Cleopatra style. In the U.S., Madam C.J. Walker redesigned it in the 1900s to have wider teeth to better work on black hair. Walker changed the lives of many black women who worked as washerwomen and maids as she employed them as “Beauty Culturists” who sold her cosmetics and hair products; she was the first self-made Black millionaire. Her products were not sold in my small town of Havre de Grace, Maryland, but they are still manufactured and sold today (Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine, Tetter Salve, and Vegetable Shampoo) at

Back in the kitchen, Sunday church dinner would have been cooking on the two back burners as Mrs. So-and-so picks up the burning hot comb.

Oh, there was a lot of multi-tasking. The blues might have been playing in the background, while her little ones ran around out of order. That yellow or blue wall-mounted phone with the long cord let her to move around with ease: she could swat a few bottoms, check on her dinner, part your hair in sections, dab a little grease on your scalp, and have a conversation on the phone all at the same time.

She picks up the hot comb, takes a dishrag lying across her shoulder, and runs it over the comb to take off a little heat. She even blows on it before she starts straightening the hair from the back to the front.

“Hold on,” she says to the person she is talking to on the phone. “I’ve got to get to this child’s ‘kitchen,” meaning the hair at the nape of your neck. From the other end of the other line, you hear, “Mmmmm, I’ll hold.”

She’s got that sizzling hot comb in her hand and she says, “Now, don’t move, baby.” You sit as still as a statue. You know your hair is being fried when the heat meets the hair grease and you hear a pop-sizzling-pop-pop sound.

She picks up where she left off on the phone. “Nun-uh, not sister so-so from the church, you don’t say?” while more casually running the hot comb through the top of your head. Now, it is time for you to participate: “Now, baby, hold your right ear down; keep still, the sides are very short. Don’t flinch — oh, baby, I didn’t mean to burn you. Let me put a little butter on that.”

No girl who had her hair straightened escaped without the tip of an ear burned, or a small mark left on her forehead at some point. Just as there is not a little girl out there who thought she was old enough to handle the hot comb herself while mom was at work — and then had to go to Sunday school, church, and school with a burned ear, scorched bangs, or no bangs at all. I also suspect there is not a little girl out there who didn’t practice on her doll’s hair and scorch it. I am guilty of that one.

I have not had my hair “dyed, fired, and laid to the side” in years. I wear it naturally in braids now. But I still hold onto the memories of those home beauticians wielding that hot comb!

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