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Friday, November 30, 2012

Colonial American Hairbrushes and Combs


Hairbrushes have been around for thousands of years.  Early hairbrushes were made of materials like shells and porcupine quills and were used to pick through hair to remove pests, tame tangles, and tug out knots. 
Though many hairbrushes were adapted from brushes that were used for painting, no one particular person is credited with drilling holes into a wooden paddle and inserting animal hairs into the holes.  Although the hairbrush has evolved through time, the basic design remains the same-- a handle, a paddle, and bristles.
William Kent began manufacturing brushes in England in 1777.  The brushes featured bristles that were stitched into the handle by hand (called hand drawing or long holing) and domed bristles.  It took as many as twelve people to make some models.
17th Century comb, used for removing pests and
taming tangles.
In the early 1700s, American newspapers advertised horn and ivory combs. But because they were imported, they were too expensive for most households, giving rise to home industries of horn breaking and comb making, or hornsmiths (hornsmithers).
Enoch Noyes who set up a shop in Leominster, Massachusetts,  in 1759, is credited with the beginning of American comb making. He was joined by William Cleland of Germany, and by 1793, there were seventy hornsmithers working for Noyes and Cleland, and Leominster became known as “Comb City.”
To make the cattle horn combs, using a hatchet Noyes would trim the ends of a horn and split it. After soaking the horn in hot oil, he opened it with tongs and laid it between heavy flat stones to cool. Then with a saw or jackknife he cut out the shape, notched in the teeth (comb drums), smoothed off the sides of the comb, and polished it with a handful of wet ashes.  He also used ivory and tortoiseshell. Noyes also made buttons.
Later history of combs and brushes --
In 1885, another English businessman, Mason Pearson, invented an automatic brush-boring machine to speed the process of brush making.  He also invented the pneumatic rubber cushioned hairbrush the same year.  Today, these brushes are considered some of the best on the market because they clean the hair, stimulate the scalp, and spread natural oils down the length of the hair, making it shinier.
child's hairbrush
In 1854, Hugh Rock filed the earliest U.S. patent for a hairbrush that featured a metal handle with an ornamental design with scalloped edges.  Brushes like this one were popular gifts (especially as part of a set with a comb and mirror) for new brides as well as new babies.
Samuel Firey patented a brush with elastic wire teeth and natural bristles in 1870.  In 1898, Lyda Newman patented a brush with a detachable handle and air chambers for ventilation.
Alfred Fuller started the Fuller Brush Company in 1906.  At the age of 18, he moved from Nova Scotia to Boston and went to work selling brushes for another company.  He began making hairbrushes, as well as home cleaning brushes, and selling them door to door, and he soon had a million-dollar business.

16 comments:

  1. How interesting! Something we take for granted today.

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    1. I'm always so curious about the small things in people's lives and it's such fun to come across information like this about combs and brushes.

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  2. Hi Susan--

    I have to say ew-w-w on the idea of the "pests"--but I guess it was a reality considering the bathing habits of our forefathers/mothers! The finer side of the comb looks like the fine-toothed combs we have today to remove "nits"--(lice).

    I can also see where the comb must have come first, then they had to find some animals with pretty stiff quills/hair for brushes. Kinda reminds me of brushes/ curry combs for horses too.

    Interesting; and one of those things we take for granted today, that might have been a luxury to early Americans. Thanks, Susan!

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    1. Thanks, Pat. I said ew-w-w too. I've read lots of books where a hairdresser uses curling irons, but I never got a real feel for what their combs and brushes looked like.

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  3. Your research is awesome. I wondered about Fuller brush guy

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I love researching. If I could find a way to make a living doing research for writers, I'd do it. That's part of why my website offers so much history. If I wrote 100 books I don't think I could use all the information I've gathered over the years.

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  4. Oh my word, I still remember the Fuller Brush Man coming to our house when I was a little girl! He carried tiny bottles of cologne that he would give me while showing his products to my Mom. It's been years since I even thought about that!

    What a process to develop brushes. So much work by so many to create one useable item. Incredible. Thanks for your great research, as always!

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    1. Elaine, I remember the Fuller Brush Man too. Do you remember the Encyclopedia salesman too? Because my mom and dad were on a tight budget, we had to order the set a few books at the time. I could hardly contain myself when the postman delivered the new books with their white covers, gold leafed pages, and gold lettering on the covers. Maybe that's where my love of research came from.

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  5. Thank you for such an informative post. I hadn't thought about hairbrushes and combs in concert with my writing, but you have sparked a small fire. We'll see what blaze develops.

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    1. Judith, how exciting, I kindled a creative fire. Let me know what comes of it.

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  6. Very interesting! Thanks for the good research and for letting us know what our characters might have been using!

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    1. Mary and Jeff, I love transporting readers back to the colonial times, and it's the small details that make our stories more authentic.

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  7. Thank you, Susan for this interesting post. I remember so well my mother's silver plated mirror, comb and brush set. I also remember the Fuller brush man and spent years trying to find an out of date brush that meant a lot to me.

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    1. So glad you like the post, Janet. My grandmother had a comb, brush, and mirror set that was porcelain with pink roses. She also had a water pitcher and bowl that I still have sitting on an antique wig stand. I can picture a little domestic scene of a colonial woman filling the bowl from the pitcher and washing her face and then her husband using it to shave.

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  8. Interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing with us. Have a wonderful weekend!

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  9. Wow, Susan, what a fascinating article! I sure learned a lot. It's so interesting to research the history of common everyday articles that we take for granted.

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