Ear cleaners

Floral hairpin and ear-scoop, Shenyang, China

Silver ear-scoop, England, 17th century

Bone ear-cleaner, England, 1920s

[b]Above left:[/b] Collected and purchased from R. T. Turley in 1896; 1896.62.130<br />[b]Right and below left:[/b] Donated by Louis Colville Gray Clarke in 1938; 1938.1.1 and .8Above left: Collected and purchased from R. T. Turley in 1896; 1896.62.130
Right and below left: Donated by Louis Colville Gray Clarke in 1938; 1938.1.1 and .8
Ear picks have been incorporated into hairpins in China and Japan for centuries. During the Heian period (AD 794–1185) in Japan, the traditional Chinese style of wearing the hair up was changed and it became fashionable to wear hair long instead. The use of hair ornaments (kanzashi) was prohibited by law, but some ladies saw a way to get around this edict by adding a utilitarian item (such as an ear spoon) to the hairpin so that they could justify the presence of the pin in their hair. This beautiful example is made of silver-plated copper and enamelled with purple turquoise and yellow floral decoration.

Ear cleaning was one of the three traditional services offered at barbers' shops in China, along with shaving and hair cutting. The art of ear cleaning is still a profession in some parts of China; in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-western China, locals and tourists alike can experience a street-side service that uses traditional tools such as copper tweezers, tongs, bamboo scoops and feather brushes.

The solid silver ear-scoop is very large at 17cm in length. It is engraved with various designs and the letters 'WDB' which may be the initials of the owner. It is thought to date to around 1600 and would have been part of a wealthy man or woman's toilet items. A bone ear scoop, manicure set, and lice combs were all found among the wreckage of Henry VIII's ship, the Mary Rose, which sank near Portsmouth in 1545.

Ear scoops have been largely replaced in the Western world by cotton buds (also known as 'cotton swabs' or 'ear buds'). Their invention is credited to the Polish-born American Leo Gerstenzang, who attached swabs of cotton to toothpicks in the 1920s. This example, with a bone handle and pink silk binding, is a very early version of Gerstenzang's design. His product went on to become the most widely sold brand name, 'Q-tip', the 'Q' standing for 'quality'. Cotton buds are now used for a variety of purposes as well as cleaning ears such as the application of cosmetics, first-aid, and arts and crafts.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England