There’s an industry that’s had something of a walk-on part in this part of the Ariège for well over 300 years. Against all the odds, it’s somehow clinging on. It’s comb-making. Specifically, combs made from horn.
Today, we went to find out more, courtesy of a visit organised by ‘Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares’. There are two ‘peignes en corne’ factories within just a very few miles of each other, and of our house too. Each used to be the size of a hamlet, with separate buildings for all the different parts of the fabrication process. Now, both firms conduct operations each from a single building. We went to ‘Azema-Bigou’, in Campredon.
I’d always imagined the industry had developed as part of a waste-not-want-not mentality, using the horns from local sheep and cattle. Not at all.
Our part of France has always been rather anti-establishment, in religion as in much else. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when much of Europe was in religious turmoil, Protestants locally were persecuted. Many fled, some to Switzerland. And there they learnt a new skill, unknown to them before: comb making.
Following the 1598 Edict of Nantes, assuring greater religious freedom, many Protestants returned to their homes here, and wanted to continue the trade they’d learnt in exile. But did they use local materials? They did not. Local cattle worked hard , ploughing and generally earning their keep. They ended up with chipped, worn horns. Over the years, the comb-makers developed markets with ports such as le Havre, Marseilles, London and Liverpool, and imported good quality horn fom Hungary, Turkey, and by the 19th century, Argentina.
Although in the early days, the trade was conducted on a domestic scale, with each worker capable of producing 10-15 combs per day, perhaps after a day in the fields, by the 1850’s the process was industrialised – with machinery imported from England. Men women and children were all employed. Men earned 2 francs a day, women 1.25, and children 1….. . No wonder women in particular preferred to be paid for piece work: that way they too might get 2 francs daily. The busy industry grew and thrived until more or less the second world war when plastic combs started to take over. The factory of Azema-Bigou, in the hands of the same family for 5 generations, employs three people these days, though in its hey-day there were 180.
But these workers will tell you, as will many local people , that it’s well worth investing in a horn comb. Like your hair, the comb is rich in keratin, and will treat your hair gently without generating static electricity. Several of my friends have had the same comb since childhood and would never be happy to replace it with some cheap piece of plastic.
Apparently horn has to be soaked for up to a year before it becomes useable, and then it is forced through heavy rollers to make useable sheets. There are some 15 different processes involved in producing the finished comb. No wonder it costs rather more than its plastic poor relation.
I can’t tell you very much more. Unusually, this event was not up to snuff. We were shown no artefacts, heard no tales from former workers in the industry. So I don’t know what it felt like to work 11 hours a day in an atmosphere where horn dust hung heavy in the air cloaking lungs and coating every surface in thick grey cushions. I don’t really understand what’s involved in transforming a rough, thick horn into a polished and handsome comb. But I do know that the waste and dust swirling round the factory got – and gets – used. The tiny fragments of waste used to be made into filaments in a factory here in Laroque, mixed with horn dust and sold as a fertiliser for vines. Even now, you can buy bags of horn-waste fertiliser for your garden from the two comb factories. Waste-not-want-not gets its moment after all.