Lice Combs

A Brief History of Lice Combs
(Revised: 2-1-08)

9,500-12,500 BC            “Hair combs as delousing implements were both effective and ancient. The comb dates as early as the Natufian period (9,500 – 12,500 BC) and its design has changed little over the millennia. In earliest times combs were made of ivory and bone; in the historical period some were made of boxwood, while bone and ivory combs continue in use.” [Dayagi-Mendels, 1993] [King & Stager, 2001] [(Natufian Culture) Wikipedia, 2008]

>3,500 BC         “Combs were found from tomb goods, even from pre-dynastic times.”[Takahashi, 2001] The first Egyptian dynasty was founded in 3,150 BC. [(Egypt) Wikipedia, 2008]

c. 3,000 BC       “Combing is the oldest method of lice control; nit combs have been found in Egyptian tombs.” [Ogg & Cochran, 2004]

3,000 –   2,000 BC         “The hundreds of tombs and their contents found in Iberia, from the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE, tell us a lot of information about the people, society … Burial customs included burial of personal goods with the deceased. … Iberian tomb contents included … ivory combs …” [Gadalla, 2004]

6th Cent BC        A carved ivory fine-tooth comb, dating from the Persian period, was excavated in Ashkelon, Israel. [King & Stager, 2001]

1st Cent BC        Head lice were found on hair combs excavated in Israel and dated from the 1st century BC to the 8th century AD.[Mumcuoglu & Zias, 1988]

100BC -200AD   A wooden comb (dated: 100BC – 200AD) was found at Ein Rachel in the Negev desert; it contained 10 head lice and 5 nits. [Mumcuoglu, 1996]

73-200 AD         “A well preserved comb of boxwood was recovered from a waterlogged deposit (at the Roman Fort ) at Ribchester (Bremetenacum) in Lancashire, UK. “The examination of the soil residues during conservation revealed fragments of head lice.” [Allason-Jones, 1999]

c. 100 AD          Dutch archaeologists discovered head lice attached to a fine-tooth wooden comb, which was buried in anaerobic mud in Vlaardingen (near Rotterdam). They also found a hobnailed Roman army boot at the same site. [MacKenzie, 1996]

5th –  6th Cent        The remains of seven head lice were found on the fine-tooth side of a wooden comb excavated in Antinoe, Egypt and dated between the 5th and 6th centuries AD.  “The effectiveness of fine-toothed combs as delousing instruments can hardly be overstated.”[Palma, 1991]

687 AD             A plain, one-piece, fine/coarse, elephant ivory comb was found in the tomb of St. Cuthbert (c. 634 – 687) at Durham, U.K. [McGregor, 1985]

10th –11th Cent    A carved, one-piece, fine/coarse, walrus ivory comb from the late 10th to early 11th century is now in the British Museum. [McGregor, 1985]

11th Cent.          Several wooden fine-tooth combs were found aboard a ship wrecked in the 11th century off of the coast of Sere Limani, Turkey. Similar boxwood combs have been found in 11th century Novgorod, Russia. Boxwood, the most common wood for such combs, was traded over long distances. [Bass & Allen, 2004]

13th Cent.          A fine-tooth comb was found in the wreck of the coaster, Culip VI, sunk in the late 13th century off Cape de Creus, Catalonia, Spain. The Culip VI was engaged in the North African trade. Its main cargo was nuts and ceramics. [Anon., 1990] [Bass & Allen, 2004]

16th Cent.          King Henry VIII’s favorite warship, the Mary Rose, was built between 1509 and 1511 and sank in 1545. She was discovered and raised in 1982. Among the artifacts discovered on board were wooden fine-tooth combs. [Anon., 1999] [Bass & Allen, 2004]

17th Cent.          A bone fine-tooth comb dating to the 17th century New England Puritans was discovered during the “Big Dig” in Boston, MA in 2000. [Johansen, 2007]

17th Cent.          Fine-tooth combs were found in the mid-17th century wreck of the  Spanish ship Stone Wall in Bermuda. The ship was recovered in 1995. [Bass & Allen, 2004]

1628                 The Swedish warship Vasa sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628. Her largely intact hull was salvaged in 1961. The upper gun-deck yielded a well-preserved chest containing a fine-tooth comb. [(Vasa) Wikipedia, 2007] [Bass & Allen, 2004]

18th Cent.          A bone lice comb and human hair with lice were found during the excavation of a late 18th Century cesspool located at Canterbury, England. [Anon., 2000]

1724                 The 1724 cargo manifest for the French Fort Pontchartrain at Detroit (founded in 1701) listed among the trade goods, 12 wooden fine-tooth combs. [Kent, 2001]

<1770               In the U.S. southwest, the Navajo Indians used the ya bega (louse killer).  “This was made of a hard wood, tsftiiz (Findlera rupicola), and required five smoothly polished thin sticks, one edge of which was smoothly beveled and slightly sharpened, with their tips tapering to a point. Near the upper end each stick was punctured with two holes though which a cord was laced, and the ends crossed at the rear, so that in operating the sticks overlap and close snugly, as with a fan. A loop at the lower end of the sticks was provided to receive the hand and hold the instrument in position. In operating it the points were pressed under the hair, hard to the skin, and by pressing the lower ends of the sticks and drawing the two strings together, the teeth or beveled edges were brought into contact and crushed any vermin falling between them.” [Franciscan, 1910]

1784                 The Spanish brig-of-war ‘El Cazador’ sank during a storm in the Gulf of Mexico in January 1784. Among the artifacts recovered (in 1994) from the wreck were fine-tooth combs used to clear nits or lice from human heads. [Anon., 1994]

1816-29             A bone headlice comb was excavated in 1930 from the site of Fort Crawford (1816 – 1829) in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. [Anon., 2006]

~1870               In Marion County, Arkansas “A strong solution of lye soap was used against head lice, along with combing the hair over a paper or cloth with a fine-toothed comb. Kerosene was used in case the other failed.” [Smith & Blakenship, 1976]

1907                 Fine-tooth combing has frequently been recommended as an adjunct treatment following the application of pediculosides. [Thomas, 1907] [Porter, 1908]   [Auden, 1921]

“Where the hair is matted or the nits abundant  …  The hair and the scalp is to be thoroughly saturated with petroleum and allowed to remain for ten to twelve hours, when the parasites and ova are entirely destroyed.  This will be followed by thoroughly washing the head with warm water and soap; any good toilet soap may be used….The hair should be carefully combed with a fine-tooth comb, in order to remove the ova, shells, and parasites.” [Thomas, 1907]

1908                 Charles Porter, a British medical officer, wrote: “1.- Get two pennyworth of Carbolic Oil (Phenol) from a chemist and rub it all over the head and hair.  Tie a cotton handkerchief over the head and leave it on all night. 2.- Next morning wash head well with soft soap and rinse with water. Then comb the head with a fine tooth-comb. 3.- Repeat this treatment daily until the head is quite well and all signs of lice are all gone.” [Porter, 1908]

1921                 George A. Auden (1872 – 1957)  recommended Derbac soap lather as a pediculoside. However, he noted that the head louse “… can be dislodged by many repellant substances accompanied by mechanical means, such as the Secker comb. … Lice, however are so resistant that only prolonged application of most substances, with the exception of mineral oils, will kill them. Moreover, lice which appear to have been killed are frequently quite active a couple of hours later. Thorough combing out is therefore essential.” [Auden, 1921]

1994                 Carlos E. Lanne, patented a new design of a fine-tooth comb for lice and nit removal. The comb, now sold as the LiceMeister®, consists of a line of 40 cylindrical metal teeth, each tapered to a point, imbedded inline in a stiff plastic handle. [Lanne, 1994] The comb was later used, in conjunction with pediculosides, to remove nits in two separate clinical trials. [Bell, 1998] [Pearlman, 2004]

2000                 North Wales, UK is an area of intermediate louse resistance to Malathion. A comparison trial of the effectiveness of Bug-Busting® (wet-combing: saturating the hair with a conditioner, and then combing with a plastic fine-tooth comb) with 0.5% Malathion lotion as treatments to eliminate head lice showed that the cure rate was 38% (12 of 32) for Bug-Busting and 78% (31 of 40) for Malathion. [Roberts et al., 2000]

2005                 The effectiveness of the ‘Bug Buster” kit for eliminating head lice (by combing with conditioner four times over two weeks) was compared with a single treatment of over-the-counter pediculicides.  The cure rate for the Bug Buster® was 57% compared to 13% for the pediculosides. [Hill et al., 2005] [Dawes, 2005]

2007                 The comparative efficiency of two fine-tooth combs was tested in removing lice and eggs from the hair of 27 children, all aged between 3 and 12 years. The LiceMeister® metal tooth comb was shown to be significantly more effective in removing lice eggs than Lady Jayne®, a much cheaper all plastic fine-tooth comb, but both combs had the same efficiency for removing lice. [Speare et al., 2007]


Allason-Jones L., “Health Care in the Roman North,” Britannia 30:138-139 (1999)

Anonymous, “CULIP VI”, (1990)

Anonymous, “Sunken Spanish Brig Yields Mementos of the Past,” The New York Times, November 21, 1994

Anonymous, “Personal Hygiene,” (1999)

Anonymous, “ Blue Boy Yard diary,” (2000)

Anonymous, “Lice Comb from Fort Crawford,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Images (2006)

Auden G.A., “The Problem of the Head Louse,” The Lancet , 198: 370-371, August 13, 1921

Bass G.F. & Allan J.W., “Serce Limani: an Eleventh-century Shipwreck,” Texas A&M University Press (2004)

BBC, “Romans Faced head-to-head battle,” BBC News March 30, 2004

Bell T.A., “Treatment of Pediculus Humanus var. Capitis Infestation in Cowlitz County, Washington, with Ivermectin and the LiceMeister® comb,” Pediactric Infectious Disease Journal, 17(10):923-924 (1998)

Dawes, M., “Combing and Cobatting Head Lice,” BMJ, 331: 362-63 (2005)

Dayagi-Mendels M., “Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient World,” Israel Museum Catalogue 395, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel (1993)

Franciscan Fathers, “An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language,” pages 170-171, The Franciscan Fathers, St. Michaels, Arizona (1910) – PPA170,M1

Fullgar R., “Ancient Nit-Pickers,” Nature Australia 27(2):15 (2001)

Hill N., Moor G., Cameron M.M., Butlin A., Preston S., Williamson M.S., and Bass C., “Single blind, randomized, comparative study of the Bug Buster kit and over the counter pediculicide treatments against head lice in the United Kingdom,” BMJ, 331: 384-387 (2005)

Ibarra J., Fry F., and Wickenden C., “Treatment of head lice,” The Lancet, 356(9246):2007 (2000)

Johansen B., “Nit-Picking in the Golden Age of Dutch Art,” NEH Seminar 2007; The Dutch Republic and Britain: The Making of Modern Society and a European World Economy (2007) Http://

Kent T.J., “Ft. Pontchartrain at Detroit: A Guide to the Daily Lives of FurTrade and Military Personnel, Settlers and Missionaries at French Posts,” Vol. I, Wayne State University Press (2001)

King P.J. and Stager L. E., “Life in Biblical Israel,” pages 74-75, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY (2001)


Lanne C.E., “Fine tooth comb for lice and pest removal, U.S. Patent Des. 353,915,” 24 Dec. (1994)

MacGregor A., “Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period,” page 79, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, U.K. (1985)

MacKenzie D., “Early Dutch dam builders were plagued by lice,” New Scientist, issue 2059, 07 Dec.(1996)

Mumcuoglu K.Y., and Zias J., “Head Lice, Pediculus humanus capitis (Anoplura Pediculidae) from hair combs excavated in Israel and dated from the first century B.C. to the eighth century A.D.,” Journal of Medical Entomology 25: 545-547 (1988)

Mumcouglu K.Y., “Control of Human Lice (Anoplura: Pediculae) Infestations: Paszt and Present,” American Entomologist, Fall 1996: 175- 178 (1996)

Ogg B. and Cochran S., “Head Lice Management”, Educational Resource Guide #018, U. of Nebraska Coop. Extension in Lancaster County, Lincoln, NE, (2004);

Palma, R.L., “Ancient head lice on a wooden comb from Antinoe, Egypt,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 77 (1991.)

Pearlman D.L., “A Simple Treatment for Head Lice: Dry-on, Suffocation Based Pediculicide,” Pediatrics 114(3):e275-e279 (2004)

Porter C., “School Hygiene and the Laws of Health,” pp. 155, new edition, Longmans, Green And Co., 39 Paternoster Row, London (1908)

Roberts R.J., Casey D., Morgan D.A., and Petrovic M., “Comparison of wet combing with malathion for treatment of head lice in the UK: a pragmatic randomizxed controlled trial,” The Lancet, 356(2000):540-544 (2000)

Speare, R, Canyon D.V., Cahill C. & Thomas G., “Comparative efficacy of two nit combs in removing head lice (Pediculus humanus var. capitis) and their eggs,” International Journal of Dermatology 46 (12), 1275-1278 (2007)

Smith Z.B. & Blakenship R., “Folkways, Folklore, Home Remedies and Superstitions,” Chapter Six, page 44, History of Marion County  (1976)

Takahashi K., “Ancient Egyptian Hairstyles,” (2001)

Thomas R.L., “The Eclectic Practice of Medicine,” Pediculosis, (1907):

©2008 by Harry A. Morewitz, PhD.  All rights reserved.