A novelty card for a “Jerusalem Overtaker” (a 19th c. slang term for a fine tooth comb). One of 25 interesting items from our latest online-only illustrated catalog of antiquarian manuscript material and ephemeral, Occasional List 18: By Hand For Hand In Hand (available as a PDF here).
For a brief rundown of some examples of the Jerusalem Overtaker, see our description of the card,
The origins of the slang term “Jerusalem Overtaker” as meaning a fine-tooth comb remain obscure to this cataloguer; the term dates at least from the Civil War and seems current up through the first part of the 20th century; see for instance the great chronicler of the traveling salesman James Perry Johnston’s How to Hustle (Chicago 1905) which includes a sample pitch for just such a comb, without any explanation of the association:
‘Here we have the little Jerusalem overtaker; catch ‘em on the hop, skip and jump, wet or dry, cold or warm, or any kind of climate at all; catch them j-u-s-t as well where there isn’t any as where there is; and sells in the regular way for — — .’ Or, for a change: ‘The little joker that takes them at h-o-m-e or on a journey, as they trot, as they hop, dead or alive, asleep or awake, running or walking, on their sides or on their backs; and sells usually for — —.’
One Charles M. Porter of Wisconsin writes in to the January, 1911 issue of Hunter—Trader—Trapper magazine with an anecdote of being troubled by a flea while walking his traps, and that, “Do you know, followers of the gun and the trap line, that it is necessary, or at least mighty convenient at certain times to have at hand on those trips a ‘Jerusalem Overtaker,’ or, in other words, a fine-toothed comb?” (He notes “a lot of agony can be avoided, and also one might avoid causing a blue haze to settle around that would obscure a barn two rods away.”)
William Baillie-Grohman’s travel account in the American West, Camps in the Rockies (London 1882) notes the “raggedest cowboy” using his “‘Jerusalem Overtaker’—as he calls his remnant of a tooth-comb,” while a one example of its use in the Civil War might be found in a brief anecdotal memoir by Civil War veteran T. C. Murphy of Pass Christian, Miss., in the American Journal for Clinical Medicine of May, 1915, where he notes,
Professor Lowry complains of the plague of lice in the army. Professor, you should say graybacks; and the only way to keep away from them is, to stay at home. You ask for experience. Here you get it… . Soldiers are not furnished looking-glasses or bath-towels; in fact, Father Abe could not furnish clothes at times. Let the Professor pull off his clothes and skirmish, boil them and pull them on to dry. I have seen the generals skirmishing. No doubt, while in camp the soldiers can keep clean in time of peace. The old ‘unniguintum’ was our great standby; close-cropped hair and a fine comb (‘Jerusalem overtaker’) kept my head clean. Measles, meningitis, and lice will follow any army.
A local history of Johnson County, Iowa (Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County Iowa History, 1912) notes that an early Iowa Civil War unit, “In addition to the clothing each man carried an equipment of personal needs, contained in one package, such as needles, pins, thread and buttons, court plaster, and a ‘Jerusalem Overtaker,’ bandages and lint in sufficient quantity, it was hoped, to be more than enough to last the service through. Yet, how little they knew of the future!” (That the term is here used without explanation suggests perhaps it was in part euphemistic.) A trifle worn at the corners, some light toning and dust-soiling; in very good condition.