The Hair Brush As We Know It

The Hair Brush As We Know ItIt’s hard to believe that the hair brush as we know it is not really that old. Ya know, a hair brush with a paddle, handle, and bristles. It’s one of those every day things that we cannot really imagine a time when they did not exist nor could we imagine life without them.

Having grown up with television and epic movies set in olden times, we don’t really realize that people did not bathe daily or even weekly. Hair was not brushed everyday nor washed once a week. It was not always combed out and lovely. We have romanticized history to the point of it not even being close to an accurate description of the lives lived. Here is the reality – Brushes served two purposes…to remove little critters and to move the natural oils from the scalp the length of the hair.

Let me just divert the conversation from brushes to combs. It used to be that combs were two sided. On one side the teeth of the comb were pretty far apart and were made for combing the hair. The other side sported teeth very close together and this was specifically made for removing critters from the hair. (EWWWWWWW!)

Although there were combs and I’m sure somewhere in the world there was a brush or two but it was not until the late 1700s that a man names William Kent began to produce brushes in England. The brush became affordable over the coming years and in the mid 1800s brushes began to be produced in the United States, although even at that point beyond the reach of the average person. They were meant for the socialites of society.

It was 1854 when the first patent was filed by Hugh Rock to produce the modern hair brush in the US. The early bristles were made from boar bristle and horsehair. The first synthetic bristle brush was patented by Lydia Newman in 1898, and we never looked back.

Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue and Buyers' Guide 1895 - MontgomThe 20th century saw little change to the overall design of the common hair brush. It still had a handle, a paddle, and bristles. The big changes came to materials used for the handle and more synthetic materials used for the bristles.

Although Celluloid was created much earlier and patented in 1869, we often think of the use of celluloid in things like hair brushes to be much later, well into the 1900s. That is not exactly true. Celluloid hair brushes were advertised the 1895 Montgomery Ward & Company Catalogue.

Montgomery Ward also advertised rubber backed brushes in the same year. The rubber was often figured with a design. Those that advertised Russia bristles.

‘Bristles are what really makes the difference in a brush even though as collectors and dealers, that is probably the last thing we look at. Of first importance to the brush industry are Russian bristles. Good toilet brushes and other kinds with stiff bristles, paint brushes and other kinds with long bristles, depend on Russia. Bristles are white, yellow, gray or black. White sells at the highest price.

Bristles are a bi-product from hogs. They are never grown solely for their bristles. There is no perfect substitute for natural bristles.’ (July 1912 Fabrics, Fancy Goods and Notions)

The 1908 Sear Catalog lists either wood brushes made from ebony, mahogany, or rosewood long with the rubber back brush. There are no listings for celluloid brushes in this catalog nor the 1902 catalog.

Interesting enough though, in 1902 Sears advertised a Wire Hair Brush with small size metallic wires and a wood back.

Boxed Toilet Sets of 1912 began to come into their own. Some simply with brush and comb while others offered manicure items. These items came in wood, leather, celluloid and imitations of each. Silver plate designs are noted as being more chaste and artistic than previously. They also noted splendid reproductions of sterling silver. (February 1912 Fabrics, Fancy Goods and Notions)

In the early teens Japan also manufactured brushes. Most of their bristles came from China. The Royal Brush Company operated out of Osaka, Japan. They used olive, ebony and boxwood for the paddle and handles.

The history of the hair brush is vague and mostly undocumented. When dating and pricing vintage brushes take a look first at the bristles. When you compare the bristles to the over all workmanship and material of the handle and paddle, you are going to be able to make a better educated guess as to its age.

hair brush celluloidAn example would be if the bristles are natural boar (hog) bristle and the workmanship of the brush is very fine, that brush could date within a wide time period. In that case you will have go off of design to try to general identify the time period, i.e. deco.

If the bristles are natural boar yet the workmanship is just not really that great, it is either a lousy copy or an older, lower cost brush prior to the availability of synthetic materials.

There does not seem to be a definitive answer on how to exactly date a hair brush but I think with a little more background and knowledge I’m hoping that makes your job easier. Knowledge tends to give all of us more confidence when identifying, dating, and pricing antiques and collectibles.


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6 comments on “The Hair Brush As We Know It

  1. Daye, This is fascinating! Have to agree w/ you that we project our current life styles onto the past…when life was simpler and well, sometimes less clean…anyway, just discovered your blog and intend to bookmark it and come back and read more. You really have done some great research! Thanks! NG.

    • Nancy Gay, Thank you! I truly love research and sharing what I find. I’m thrilled that you find it valuable and I hope you share it with other when appropriate.

      One has to really stop and think, that’s true. I was so surprised to learn that the hairbrush was not very old. It is fascinating stuff.


    • Honestly, I was surprised by the history as well. I had this topic on my list of short (and quick) articles and it turned out to be anything but. Thank you Ubong!

  2. Wow! So much history in such an ordinary, everyday bathroom item. I’m always amazed when I read about how unkempt and slovenly people were in centuries past. Sometimes we take it a little too far the opposite direction now – but I’d rather be safe and clean rather than walking around with little critters in my hair. That can’t be good.

    • When I was researching I really was like Ewwwwwwwww! I could not imagine. Interesting enough and something I actually forgot to include in the article is that the hair brush was called a toilet brush. Not because it was used on the toilet but because it was part of a woman’s toilet.

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