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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 cadet's hatbox with included brush

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.

     trepanning augur and related brush

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.

large double size paintbrush

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.

      Round bristled paint brush

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.

      Newer commercially made paint brush

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.

 Gummed up paintbrush

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.

      Ship seam brushes

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.

      Oil-lamp chimney brush

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.

      Moulder's brushes

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?

      Tortoise shell clothes brush

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.

Tortoise shell brush detail

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.

  Bath dept. store brushes

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.

pocket size hat brush

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.

 stove and shoe blacking brush kit

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.

Blacking brush detail

 

      Crumber pan and brush

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.

      Shaving brush, cosmetic brush

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?

      Hog hair toothbrushes

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.)

      Hog bristle bell-scraper

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.

      'Golliwog' hearth broom

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

 

 

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Maine Maritime Museum

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Bath, Maine 04530