Black History Month, Part 2: Sheep Tools and Bacon Fat

Fact #2:

Tightly curled hair can be challenging to comb and detangle which is why many Africans developed specialized tools and methods for maintaining their hair.  It could sometimes take hours or even days to create the lavish designs representing traditional hairstyles.  Once enslaved this was not possible, since working 12-15 hours a day under a hot sun left no time for maintaining and styling their hair.

In Africa, there were hand carved wooden combs with long wide teeth and rounded ends that could be used to detangle the hair.  In place of their treasured combs, slaves had to use a sheep fleece carding tool to groom their hair.  This carding tool had steel wire teeth, a wooden handle, and carried with it lice, ringworm, and other diseases that were passed on to the slaves.  It is no surprise that many photos of slaves show them wearing headscarves, most likely worn to cover up scabs, bald patches, and other hair problems brought on by the carding tool.


Slaves wearing scarves working in the cotton fields.

It wasn’t until after the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1808, were slaves given one day a week, Sundays, to rest and attend church.  Sundays also became the day to style the hair and exchange tips for hair care.  Centuries in bondage without the traditional oils, butters, and combs used in Africa forced slaves to care for their hair using the only products that were available to them.  To replace palm oils, bacon fat and goose grease were used.  Instead of shea, cooking butter was used to condition the hair.  Even coffee and axle grease were used as natural hair dyes.  Thankfully, we now have products that are designed specifically to style, moisturize, and condition curly hair.  Over the years, more and more products were created that catered to African-Americans.

References: Byrd, A. L., & Tharps, L. L. (2001). Hair Story: Untangling the roots of black hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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