The Industrial Revolution was built on the invention of new materials.
Machines allowed them to be mass produced into cheap products, quickly. The
exploitation of sweatshop laborers had a profound impact on society.
Plastic comb making was no exception.
In America, the most famous factory was in Leominster, Massachusetts. In
France, combs were made in Oyonnax, an administrative region of Ain, which
is located in the Rhône-Alpes. The town has a museum dedicated to comb
making and the plastics industry called the Musée du Peigne et des
Auguste Bonaz, the most famous comb designer of the Art Deco period, had
his designs made there. He was one of the only artists who signed his
Today, collectors think only about beauty, innovation, and geniuses carving
masterpieces with their own hands.
Starting in 1896, however, factory men and women sat for 16 hours a day in
front of hydroelectrically powered turning machines. Then the French
mechanic Humbert adapted the band saw, which allowed plastic combs to be
cut in patterns. In 1871, Lyon Vuillermoz invented a machine that enabled a
worker to punch the pattern into the plastic with a single stroke of the
This is what women polishing combs looked like.
From our Bonaz collection, here is some of the art that came out of their
labor on those machines.
Photograph 1: Factory women at Oyonnax polishing combs, “Oyonnax (Ain) –
Industrie du Peigne (Le Polissage)” Postcard by François Vialatte, who
documented working conditions at the factories starting in 1896. Source:
“Le Peigne Dans Le Monde,” by Robert Bollé, page 33.
Photograph 2: Closeup of a factory woman at Oyonnax
Photograph 3: © Creative Museum: Horse-shoe shaped comb decorated with a row
of huge faux-pearls contrasting with the black of the celluloid. Signed
Photograph 4: © Creative Museum: The ivory celluloid shows an intricate
decoration that entrances the eye.
Photograph 5: © Creative Museum: This Bonaz comb could be called “Every Cloud
Has a Silver Lining.” The tines are used in a uniquely imaginative way,
depicting both the rain pouring from the clouds, but also in their usual
function at the bottom of the comb.
Photograph 6: © Creative Museum: Rare Auguste Bonaz comb from his Art Nouveau
period, depicting a dragon. There are gold accents on this dragon’s wings
and head, and his eyes are made of yellow paste stones.
Photograph 7: © Creative Museum: Celluloid could be shaped as far as the
imagination could go, thanks to the comb-making machines at Oyonnax. In
this comb, Bonaz suspends seven balls on an architectural frame.
Photograph 8: © Creative Museum: Two delicately carved and painted peacocks
hold a green medallion in a comb shaped for their tails. Signed Auguste
Photograph 9: © Creative Museum: Made c. 1910-20 in Oyonnax, five medallions
of painted leaves and paste stones rest in the middle of a curved frame.
The medallions are held in place by vertical lines. This Art Nouveau motif
is designed by Auguste Bonaz with Art Deco lines.