The Hairbrush Through the Regency

Archaeological evidence suggests that the hairbrush has existed in one form or another since early pre-historic times. Today, one can find dozens of them, in all shapes, styles and colors, on racks at any number of stores and shops, in a wide array of materials and prices. But what about during our favorite decade? There were certainly many hairbrushes made and used during the years of the Regency. But at that time they were not common, garden-variety grooming implements and not everyone could afford one. However, those that could typically had a much higher quality hairbrush than do most of us today, since all hairbrushes at that time were hand-made. Might a fuller understanding of the hairbrush have some bearing on the use of that grooming implement in a tale of romance in the Regency?

Hairbrushes through the Regency . . .

Most scholars are of the opinion that hairbrushes, like combs, have existed in some form for at least two million years. It is generally believed that our pre-historic ancestors used some type of brush, if only a handful of twigs, to execute their cave paintings. Gradually, it is thought that they adapted those painting brushes to other purposes, such as sweeping their floors and even grooming their hair. In particular, the hairbrush may have evolved from the comb, since it had sturdy teeth which could be used to remove insects and other unwanted debris from the hair in addition to untangling it. In Ancient Egypt, and later, in Greece and Rome, the wealthier members of those societies found that brushes were much more effective than a simple comb in styling the complex and ornate hairstyles which had become fashionable. Though hairbrushes were also more difficult and labor-intensive to make than combs, there were many who had the wealth to afford these luxury grooming implements. That situation did not change over the course of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Hairbrushes remained an expensive luxury item on the Continent and in the British Isles, well into the nineteenth century. From the medieval period until the latter decades of the eighteenth century, hairbrushes were specialty items which were made by any craftsman who had experience working the materials of which they were comprised. Therefore, if someone wanted a hairbrush with a bone handle, they would place their order with a craftsman who was skilled at working with bone. If someone wanted a hairbrush with a wooden handle, they would order their new grooming implement from a craftsman with fine wood-working skills. The craftsman who had been commissioined to make the hairbrush would then form the block and the handle from the material of choice. This work was done in much the same way as the bone, ivory or fine wood was shaped and finished for any other specialty item.

The next step in making a brush was to set the bristles into the block. The block was the wider portion of the brush back, situated above the handle. Unlike brushes used for painting or sweeping, it had long been determined that the most effective method of setting the bristles of a hairbrush was to place them perpendicular to the block and handle. Therfore, lines of evenly-spaced small holes would have to be drilled into the front side of the finished block, to a depth of about half the thickness of the block, depending upon the coarseness or fineness of the bristles to be used. The size of the holes and the distance between them would be determined by the size of the tufts, or bristle bundles, which were to be placed into each hole of that specific brush block.

The bristles which would be set into the brush block could vary widely. Boar bristles were, and still are, considered the very best bristles for use in hairbrushes, and were therefore the most expensive. Regular brushing with a hairbrush made of boar bristles would keep hair healthy and shiny. The slightly rough surface of each bristle would gently spread the natural oils of the scalp up from the root, along the hair shaft. Spreading the natural oil along the length of the hair shaft prevented the roots and scalp from developing an oily, greasy appearance. More importantly, the natural oil strenthened the hair shaft, as well as imparting suppleness and an attractive sheen. The first step in preparing the bristles was to clean them of any foreign material, after which they would be laid out and sorted by color, type and length. It was important that bristles of the same color type, thickness and length be used in order to produce a brush with a uniform tuft pattern and color. The bristles to be used would all have to be cut to size, then bundled together to form each tuft before it could then be set into the block. Typically, these bundles were bound together using wire. Silver wire was the most expensive and was used in the best brushes. Copper wire was used for most other brushes, though iron wire was used for the cheapest brushes

Animal hair was also sometimes used in the making of less expensive hairbrushes, the most popular being horse and goat hair. Though hair brushes would be useful in smoothing and detangling hair, they were not as effective in spreading the natural scalp oil along the hair shaft. As with the fresh bristles, the animal hair would have to be washed, dried, carefully combed to untangle it while removing any short or broken hairs. The clean, combed hair would then be sorted by color and thickness, then, in most cases, treated with some process and/or chemical by which to make it tougher. The treated hairs would then be cut to size and gathered into tufts, wired together, ready to be set into the brush block.

It seems that hot pitch was the key ingredient in the making of many early hairbrushes. Each bristle or hair tuft would be gathered together at the base, and dipped into hot pitch. The tuft would then be tied at the base with fine twine, after which it would be dipped into the hot pitch once more, to secure the knots and more closely bind the twine to the bristles or hairs. Once each tuft had been dipped into hot pitch the second time, it was plunged into one of the holes in the block of the brush and left to cool and set. Once all the brush tufts had been set and the pitch was completely cooled, any pitch which might have spilled on the block was removed. The bristle or hair tufts were then given a final trim to ensure they were all of nearly the same length and with no broken or jagged ends. By the late eighteenth century, hot pitch was replaced with strong hide glues in the making of the best quality brushes.

The year 1777 saw an important development in the production of the hairbrush in England. In Hertforshire, a man named William Kent established the very first company in all of Britain devoted soley to the making of hairbrushes. It was not long before he also opened premises in London, in Tylers Street. Later his firm, G. B. Kent & Sons, later moved to larger premises in Great Marlborough Street, which seems to have been their location during the Regency. By that time, they were also making a number of different types of brushes, not just for hair, but also toothbrushes, clothes, shoe and scrubbing brushes, among others. After more than 240 years, Kent Brushes is still in business to this day, though it is now owned by another family. In fact, Kent Brushes holds the Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth II to manufacture her brushes, as they have from nearly every British monarch since the company was founded. It is considered the oldest brush manufacturer in the world and the firm still manufactures many of their best hairbrushes by hand even today, using only high-quality materials.

For the most part, Kent Brushes were manufactured using fine woods, such as cherry, ebony, satinwood, and beechwood. It does appear that they may have taken some special orders for brushes made with bone or ivory handles. Most of their hairbrushes were made with the best quality wild boar bristles, which, at that time, were usually imported from China or India. The bristles were carefully cleaned, sorted and trimmed before being gathered into tufts to set into the brush block. It appears that Kent brush-makers chose to forego the use of hot pitch or hide glue by the turn of the nineteenth century. Records show that each brush was assembled by hand-stitching in a process known as "hand drawing" or "long holing." However, it is not clear from those records whether or not an adhesive was used in conjunction with the hand drawing process. It is known that, during the Regency, twelve different workers were required to complete all the hand work which went into the making of a single Kent boar bristle hairbrush.

According to The British Encyclopedia, Or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published just before the Regency, in 1809, a brush was "an instrument made of bristles, hair, wire or small twigs, to clean cloaths, rooms, &c. . . . " During the Regency, the very best brushes were made by G. B. Kent & Sons, while there were other manufacturers who produced less costly brushes with lower quality materials for those with slimmer wallets. Typically, hairbrushes were the most expensive of all brushes made during the Regency, because they were intended for use in personal grooming. In view of the fact that they were primarily used as an implement for the styling of hair, rather than just getting out the tangles, hairbrushes were considered a special indulgence reserved solely for the use of affluent members of society. Very few poor people owned a hairbrush during the Regency, most were lucky even to posses a comb. The majority of upper-class ladies and gentlemen owned a fine boar bristle hairbrush, while the members of the middle classes might have to settle for a hairbrush made of goat or horse hair. Curiously, it seems that most hairbrushes made for the use of ladies had a long handle while the majority of hairbrushes for gentlemen had no handle at all, but consisted of just the round, oval or square block filled with bristles. It is also interesting to note that a hairbrush was considered an appropriate gift for a special occasion, such as a wedding or a christening, and might be cherished by the recipient all their life. With care, many of these hand-make hairbrushes would last a lifetime.

Hairbrushes, like every other brush during the Regency, were made by hand, a very labor-intensive process. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that more economically priced hairbrushes began to be made by machine. Of course, most people still preferred a hand-made hairbrush. However, the lower cost of machine-made hairbrushes meant that they were available to many more people than had ever before been the case. It was at about this time that some hairbrushes were made with backs that were laminated with ivory, mother-of-pearl or even silver. During the Regency, most hairbrushes were made of fine woods, though a few were made of bone or ivory. But few, if any of them, had their backs decorated beyond a bit of carving or maybe a painted image. Most were simply polished hardwoods with a fine grain. It was not until later in the nineteenth century that dresser sets were made which consisted of a hand mirror, a hairbrush and a comb. Though combs were made by some brush-makers during the Regency, the two implements were not typically sold as sets, as they came to be during the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know more about hairbrushes during the Regency, will you change the way in which you use them in your stories of romance? Since G. B. Kent & Sons were the premier producers of hairbrushes in Regency London, will one or more of your characters refuse to use a hairbrush made by anyone else? In addition to hairbrushes, Kent made toothbrushes, shaving brushes, shoe and clothes brushes, among others. Might the shop of G. B. Kent & Sons make a unique place for the hero and heroine to meet, while both are there shopping for a new brush? Or, perhaps the heroine, a girl just up from the country, is embarrassed when the tufts begin to fall out of her inexpensive goat hair hairbrush. Who will come to her rescue and how? Mayhap the hero makes the heroine a gift of a new Kent boar bristle hairbrush on the occasion of their wedding, with the stipulation that he be the only one allowed to brush her long and lovely hair each night? Are there other ways in which a hairbrush might smooth the plot of a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to The Hairbrush Through the Regency

  1. I have to say I was first struck by thinking of the custom of brushing the hair in silence in front of a mirror and waiting for one’s beloved’s face to appear [a bit grisly in my opinion but there you go] as a form of divination eating an apple by the light of two candles comes in there as well, I think, it’s usually a halloween custom now, but I believe it was also associated with some female saint at some point. if the hero happens to glance into the chamber she has chosen for this, perhaps using a better mirror than the one in her room … or if the wrong man peeks at her ritual ….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      For centuries, there were a great many superstitions and rituals which were intended to give a young woman a clue to her future husband. Which I think demonstrates how important marriage was to most young women. Curiously, there seem to have been far fewer superstitions and rituals by which a young man might see his future wife.

      Though a lot of those superstitions originated in pagan times, there were several female saints who were supposed to provide young Christian woman with clues to their future husband, too. You are right, though many of those rituals were supposed to have been performed on that specific saint’s day, in modern times, most of them tend to be performed on Halloween. Which I find very peculiar, since that originated as a day dedicated to the dead. Go figure!

      Regards,

      Kat

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