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A switch comb, also known as a switchblade comb, is a type of novelty comb designed to resemble a switchblade. It typically consists of a slim handle with a black grip and metal butt. Depressing a button on the handle releases a catch, causing a comb to swing out from a groove in the center of the handle and lock in place.
The knife which a switch comb resembles, the stiletto switchblade, became popular in the United States following the Second World War. The stiletto switchblade, also called a flick knife but most commonly simply called a switchblade, had a slim blade with a sharp point. Some had only one edge, the one which tucked into the grip, sharpened, while others had dull edges and were designed for thrusting.
In the 1950s, the switchblade rapidly became a symbol of crime and juvenile delinquency. Films, television and comics portrayed gangs of young men armed with switchblades as a major threat to public safety. At the same time, elaborate pompadours became a common hairstyle among young men, particularly in the so-called "greaser" subculture. Switchblades and heavily-gelled hair, along with hot rods and black leather jackets, became symbols of youthful rebellion and even violence.
The combination of the switchblade and pompadour hairstyle as icons of unruly youth led to the introduction of the switch comb. The mechanism of the switch comb is similar to that of the switchblade, with a narrow comb springing out from the grip and locking into place. The comb itself can be either steel or hard, usually black, plastic. Switch combs are typically roughly four inches long, with a five-inch handle.
The appeal of the switch comb depended on the contrast between the perceived violent nature of the object and its real, peaceable purpose. The switch comb would provoke a reaction from "squares" who had accepted the media's hysterical depiction of youth violence, with the punchline coming from the revelation that the presumed weapon was no more than a comb. The warlike appearance of the comb also allowed greasers to carry a grooming product without detracting from their macho appearance.
Today, the switch comb is a recognized part of the 50s greaser or rockabilly persona. Novelty and costume shops sell switch combs, either as joke gifts or as components for retro costumes. Unlike the combs, however, switchblades themselves are illegal in many parts of the United States, making them rare and no longer likely to be mistaken for their comb counterparts.
I actually had a real switchblade comb when I was a teen in the late 50s. It was made out of steel and the mechanism was just as fast as a switchblade knife. I had a ducktail haircut, so I really did need to use a comb to keep it looking right. The teachers used to get a little nervous when we pulled them out at school, but they'd let us use them as long as we showed them the comb part.
I was surprised to see switchblade combs make a comeback in the 70s, but those were mostly cheap plastic knockoffs. My son bought one for a costume on Halloween, but never actually used it. I wish I knew what happened to the one I had. It might be worth some money these days.
These switchblade combs may not have been strictly illegal, but they were definitely not allowed on school grounds. My dad bought two switchblade combs at a flea market and gave them to me and my brother. Neither one of us actually used combs to style our hair, but we brought them to school just to act "cool". I'd pull it out of my back pocket and flick it open, then pretend to comb my hair like Fonzie from the show "Happy Days".
One of my teachers caught me doing it and she confiscated the comb. The principal said I could have it back as long as I promised never to bring to school again. It looked too much like an illegal weapon, and he was afraid someone would get the wrong idea and think I was really threatening him or her with a real knife.