No. 38: Brush Up Your Bristles
Presenting another of our studies of certain overlooked, humble, sometimes abused, yet unique and indispensible implements employed in the past times of coastal Maine: brushes. Unique to all these is that the bristles are natural - collected from animals - horse, boar, badger, camel, rabbit, cat, or whatever the cat dragged in.
With respect, close kin are not included here: feather dusters are out, mops are out, wire brushes are out, whisk brooms are out. Only natural bristle brushes cut it.
Naval careers can involve close brushes; they most certainly involve clothes brushes. Behind every resplendent uniform, there is a good set of bristles. Thoughtfully included in the enameled metal box that houses and protects the dress uniform sword-belt, epaulettes, and beaverskin hat of 1924 U.S. Naval Academy graduate John F. Cooke, is also a brush, as supplied by the Wm. H. Horstmann Co. - Philadelphia and Annapolis, longtime purveyors of naval uniforms.
Cooke polished up his brass even after leaving the Navy in 1928, putting in over twenty years at Hyde Windlass Co., the profitable Bath foundry and fabricator of marine deck equipment, where he became the ultimate president before it merged with Bath Iron Works in 1963.
A brush for another sort of close brush, used to clear bone shavings from a ship’s surgeon’s trephine or trepanning augur. (The squares are an inch-scale grid.) The exquisite ebony and brass craftsmanship of this demure duo reflects the standards of 19th century medical instruments, which were hardly more than finely tuned piercing, sawing, and trimming versions of carpenter’s tools. Chucked into a bit-brace, the trephine augur bored a hole through the skull to relieve pressure on the brain caused by internal bleeding, often from a concussion, a common mariner’s accident in peace or war; bone-dust is finer and stickier than sawdust, hence the need for the brush. Wood also tends not to scream when strapped to the workbench.
Painting the largest wooden schooners ever built, most of which were launched here at our Percy & Small shipyard site, involved coating nigh onto half an acre of planking, figuring roughly 10,000 square feet on each side of a six-master like the giant Wyoming. These supersized brushes were customized to cover such vast terrain; two ‘regular’ brushes were bound together on each side of the handles, which are two feet long, and would require two hands and mighty forearms to operate. (A penny for scale.)
These things were wielded, and watch out below. Major drip hazard.
A "classic," pre-1940 paint brush; the round cluster of 5-inch bristles are the naturally tapered outer ends of horse tail or mane hairs bound around a wooden core by a wound wire ferrule. The handle tapers to fit the grip nicely, with a wide end providing leverage for the forefinger. Though a small machine winder may have applied the ferrule, assembling a brush has always involved specialized, meticulous hand work, particularly in the collating of the bristles. Women and children were common in the brush-making trade.
A later, round, more obviously commercial brush (note the embossed "Tokyo" trademark) with a machine-pressed ferrule, extra binder ring, and hanging hole in the handle. The gradual change to the flat-bound paint brushes more familiar to us is not well documented, but analogous to the change from round brooms to flat, as invented by the Shakers. A flattened cluster of broomstraw or brush bristles works more efficiently using less material.
Though a painter worth his salt tended his stable of brushes like the fine workhorses they were, "classic" brushes also received classic neglect, even in the era before being considered disposable. Ironically, that's when they become museum pieces; like a hapless mastodon at the edge of the tar-pit, immortality as an artifact often comes through clumsiness or neglect. We get all the rejects; museums are excellent bottom feeders.
The last substance to petrify this brush appears to be white lead, though there is a strong underpinning of tar. Just why the whole mess was then wrapped in newsprint is a mystery, but a date of sorts for this brush’s terminal event can be gleaned from this wrapping - a review fragment extolling the advent of Here's Lucy with Lucille Ball, "television's zaniest madam." That was 1968, in case you're headed for Jeopardy.
The plank seams of a wooden ship need to be primed with paint after being caulked; this will keep the caulking from wicking out the solvents and oils of whatever seam compound is applied over the caulking, thus keeping it from drying, cracking, and otherwise degrading the caulking. In the course of applying red lead primer to the seams, the longer brush above has been used to rejection, with all its end bristles worn away to the angle it was held at. In contrast, the Gerts-Lumbard 5” Ship Seam brush (so labeled) shows little wear, though could have been used cleaning new seams on smallcraft before caulking, for example, and we wouldn’t know it.
G-L was a venerable Chicago brush-and-broom purveyor who, since the 1850's, mastered the marketing tactic of stamping brushes with their intended use, thus vastly increasing their inventory selection. On one hand, one marvels at the hundreds of catalog pages of specialized brushes, but on the other, their "Pullman Car Scrub," by which conductors and porters dusted off railroad coach seats and surfaces, looks pretty much like a good enamel paintbrush. And the ship seam brush above is simply a re-labeled stair ballister, or draftman's brush. No dust on Gerts-Lumbard.
Some situations do require specialized brushes. Before electric light, keeping oil lamps free of lampblack, the soot deposited from a poorly trimmed wick, was an inevitable chore. This nifty lamp chimney brush cranks around the hard-to-reach inside, if you hold it just right.
Though lampblack was one of many banes of 19th household cleaning, it was a substance widely used commercially in paint and in foundry work. These two brushes were used by a moulder to apply lampblack onto a casting mold as a release agent. The rubber bulb detached to be filled with lampblack, which was puffed out through a small, allegedly camelhair brush. The simpler brush is homemade - just a blob of congealed pitch binding a tuft of hair to a wire - but as soft as any fancy make-up brush. I would wager it is human hair, in cheap supply at any barber shop. Still is, though who makes their own brushes anymore?
A number of domestic brushes inhabit our 1910 House collection, which has accrued in lengthy anticipation of re-creating a typical Bath shipyard worker's house from the era of the Great Schooners. Before dry cleaning, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, household cleaning was simply pushing dust and dirt from one spot to another until it hit the floor and was swept out the door, so to speak. A good brush was a good friend. A stiff clothes brushing could put off the more onerous task of laundering.
This tortoise shell clothes brush was likely part of a monogrammed bureau set, though we are missing the rest. It is a timeless object, having outlived several generations that used and appreciated it, and several more that no longer would, given the cheap, almost disposable nature of garments and brushes today.
The brush itself was all handmade - the shell-back cut, shaped, and burnished, with a couple hundred holes aligned to receive several thousand organized bristles, all matched for color and trimmed to uniformity. The complex brass monogram was not only cut but also inlaid into the shell. So maybe not a Strad, but this horsehair still made someone hum when they stroked with it.
Two hometown clothes brushes with better provenance.
Top brush: from the venerable Bath drygoods store, established in 1852 by David T. Percy, which continued in fine style after 1923, when it became Bridge-Merrill, Inc. Bottom brush:Waterman's had a much briefer run: Adolph Waterman kept his 'One Price Clothing Store and Haberdashery' at 76 Front St. from 1901-1905. The brush is marked 'Made in Germany' which begs the question as to how and when it was embossed with the Waterman's advertising, and if this was a cost-effective giveaway.
Just as any modern destroyer built here in Bath leaves with toilet paper as well as torpedoes, so any 19th-century schooner with crew aboard descending the Kennebec for the first time received the "customary Bath outfit" - pots, pans, dishes, pails, soap, mops, mattresses, linens, blankets, brushes, etc. Most Bath shipmasters and managers had accounts with establishments like Percy's and Waterman's.
Can a brush be called exquisite? A tidy little pocket-size gem of the brushmaker's craft, possibly for tidying the nap of one's derby, when calling on a prospect. Sounds a bit dandified, but airborne soot from coal boilers, whether railroad, marine, or industrial, was a fact of life from roughly 1850-1950. Would fit neatly next to a hip-flask.
A "Sunshine Polisher" set, for either boot-blacking or stove-blacking. The wound-wire dauber brush echoes a stove-top griddle lifter; the pointed tip was for prying off a polish can lid, an 1867 patent date is just visible in small lettering. This is not an ensemble for the amateur; the elaborately embossed nickeled-brass is professional grade, and is endowed with the visage of the Sun King himself, or possibly the Cowardly Lion, not to blacken a name.
A crumber set, from back when crumb was a verb, back when we had crumby linen tablecloths to tend, or staff we hired to do so. Also known as a "silent butler," the curved brush was brandished near one's elbows to discreetly corral the flotsam and jetsam of the meal and whisk it onto the silvered tray. Mixed emotions ran over me when this has happened (twice, in a large hotel): "I'm being treated like royalty, rather special; what's desert?" and "Egad, I'm a little pig. They're sweeping up all around my place-setting; hmm, do I tip for this ignominy?" I'll never know; it was swept under the carpet.
Back to more cutting-edge bristles: (left brush) This "Ever Ready" 200C shaving brush is likely too late for our 1910 collection, though accessioned with that intent in 1977. "Ever Ready" was a brand of safety razor absorbed by a 1906 merger with American Safety Razor; their long-lasting line of "Ever Ready" brushes was not introduced until 1915. Not until the 1950's is the "crystal clear celluloid" handle of this model showing up in catalog pages.
Just how the poor badgers got tangled up with shaving is anyone's guess; they still are, of course, setting the standard for shaving brush bristles through the decades. "Finest pure French badger" from the 1920's trickles down to "Chinese badger-like blended bristle and hair" by 1950.
(right brush) A bit of a stumper from a recently accessioned group of items associated with Kennebec River pilot Capt. Anson M. Oliver, though a cosmetic brush may not have been included in the kit he grabbed to meet a schooner off Seguin. It does have an embossed braided ropework motif; the cap at the base of the hollow handle unscrews; the bristles seem too coarse, however, for cosmetic application. Anyone's guess?
As I have touched on above, putting words on a brush, or any item for that matter, not only reveals that item as an offspring of mass-production, but also courts us as consumers. Just a simple one-word trademark on an implement implies a complex social, economic and technological paradigm: a. that the user/consumer is literate; b. that they have money to spend; c. that there is a transportation/distribution network; and d. that specialization is worth purchasing.
(left brush)The Pro-phy-lac-tic tooth brush came about in 1885 as a new way to use an early plastic called Florence Compound, originally in use for daguerreotype cases. Our specimen here has the 1920 trademark graphics.
(right brush) The bi-colored tufts of this less well-documented "Reputation" brand are another way to wave technology under our noses and see if we will bite - it's more complicated, so it must be better. In fine print, this brush also touts that it is sterilized. Bottom line: it is still a mouthful of swine bristles. (Nylon entered after 1938.)
(When does a tooth brush become a toothbrush? Here is a nice online piece about the semiotics of the Pro-phy-lac-tic toothbrush.)
Just in case you are wondering, this (unused) bell scraper is used to remove the bristles from a hog. The edge of the cupped circular blade is filed sharper, the wooden grip held vertically, and vigorously scraped along the pig's skin in a circular motion. The pig has no say in the matter at this point.
When does a brush become a broom? I would maintain this is a brush, given it has natural bristles, but this startling "Golliwog Hearth Broom," as it was so called, was manufactured in Ashville, North Carolina by Biltmore Industries sometime before 1930. The Vanderbilts founded this American offshoot of the William Morris Arts and Crafts movement in 1905 near their Biltmore Estate; it evolved primarily into a hand-loomed textile operation, and continues weaving blankets today.
If this apparition popped up from behind my sofa, every dog and baby in the place would start howling.
Don't brush me off; let me know you've made it down to the Orlop!
Chris Hall, Curator of Exhibits
Artifacts in order of appearance:
1. Naval uniform brush 82.82.4 John F. Cooke
2. Trephine brush 72.077.30.17 Morris Smith
3. Paint brush double 94.087.014 MMM Burden Collection
4. Paint brush 2003.73.9 MMM Burden Collection
5. Paint brush 72.019.17 Mrs. Charles J. Donnell
6. Paint brush 'Lucille Ball' U577 MMM Burden Collection
7. Seam brush 2007.006.58 Museum Purchase, John Shaw shipyard, Machias
8. Red lead brush 77.094.21 Ralph L. Grindal
9. Lamp chimney cleaner, 77.121.0381 MMM Burden Collection
10. Moulder's brush with bulb 71.111.16 Phil Morey
11. Moulder's homemade brush Museum Salvage
12. Tortoise-shell brush, monogram "DS" 71.110.081 M/M L.M.C Smith
13. Clothes brush 74.156 Museum Salvage
14. Clothes, brush 77.052.02 Robert Erskine
15. Hat brush 77.121.0134 MMM Burden Collection
16. Polish brush and dauber 77.121.0372.1&.2 MMM Burden Collection
17. Crumber set 74.91.7 Bertha Emond
18. Shaving brush 'Ever Ready' 77.050.05A Phillis Bowie
19. Cosmetic brush 2010.61.13 Bruce Bickford
20. Toothbrush 'Pro-phy-lac-tic' 72.144.18 Dan Donovan
21. Toothbrush 'Reputation' 78.83.180 MMM Burden Collection
22. Golliwog fireplace boom U3539
23. Hog scraper 71.203.33A Mrs. Oscar S. Cox