Bristling with heritage
Pick up an heirloom brush and banish bad-hair days forever, urges Flora Watkins
Heirloom brushes will banish badhair days, says Flora Watkins
IN country houses throughout the land, you’re almost certain to find three things in the nursery: a dappled-grey rocking horse, a wooden Noah’s ark and a Mason Pearson child’s hairbrush in pink or blue, with baby-soft bristles.
Go down a floor and, in the master bedroom, there will be a set of silverbacked brushes laid out on the dressing table, engraved with the initials of the current chatelaine or perhaps those of a much-loved grandmother. Enter the bathroom and there, alongside the shaving soap and razor, you’ll find a pair of gentleman’s military brushes.
Nefertiti may well have had a brush with which to caress her crowning glory—examples have been excavated from the tombs of Ancient Egyptians—but the hairbrush as we know it was certainly in use by the reign of George III and, when William Kent founded the brush manufacturer G. B. Kent & Sons in London in 1777, it quickly received a Royal Warrant.
Nine reigns and nine successive Royal Warrants later, much about Kent Brushes, as the company is now known, remains the same. Its brushes are still manufactured in England and many continue to be handmade, using natural boar bristle and wood. Creative director Ben Cosby can’t comment on what the company provides to The Queen, but he does disclose that the ‘Kent NB1 nailbrush is the brush of choice for all the gardeners who work at The Prince of Wales’s Highgrove estate’. Quality and continuity are the hallmarks of another hairbrush maker that remains a household name. Mason Pearson was an enterprising engineer who started out in the wool industry in Yorkshire, designing looms, before moving into brushes in the East End of London. In 1885, he patented a brush-boring machine to speed up the manufacturing process and, in the same year, invented the famous rubbercushion hairbrush. ‘We still use it now,’ says his great-grandson, managing director Michael Pearson (a fifth-generation
Pearson—a nephew—is also involved with the company). With 40 years’ service to the firm, he’s well placed to attest to the affection people have for the company's products. ‘We sometimes receive brushes [for repairs] and enquiries addressed to just “Mason Pearson, London, England”—the text that appears on the handles and boxes.’ Every brush is accompanied by an anecdote. ‘Some people call it the “puffy brush”. I’ve heard that girls at boarding schools even used to use our wares in the dormitories as water pistols!’
In Birmingham, Broadway Silversmiths creates exquisite silver brushes and mirrors—along with cufflinks, candlesticks and tableware—that are sold in Fortnum & Mason and Mappin & Webb. They’re the sort that one imagines Lizzie and Jane Bennet used to brush out each other’s hair as they sat up late after the Netherfield Ball, dissecting the night’s events.
Many of the designs that the company produces today are made with patterns created by the founder, Benjamin Broadway, in 1900. ‘They’re made with such precision and quality that you can’t better them,’ says his great-great grandson Christian Broadway. ‘You can’t get the detail with hydraulic presses —we use drop-stamps, which are handoperated.’ The brushes come in ‘carcass’ form from Kent, then the silver is put onto them. ‘We’ve looked at buying from China and India, but the quality is awful,’ he adds.
At Kent Brushes, which has been owned by the Cosby family since 1932, when the last of the Kent brothers died, it’s inconceivable that its range of products would be made anywhere but England. ‘If we were to outsource everything, we would very quickly lose our identity,’ says Mr Cosby, the third generation to be involved with the business. ‘We’d become just another brand, with no real craftsmanship or soul.’
These companies use often labour-intensive, handfinished processes that would make a private-equity firm weep. Mr Broadway has even been known to refurbish brush sets that are particularly rare or sentimental at no charge (the usual cost is about £300). It’s particularly cheering,
‘It took Mr Pearson two years to work in his favourite brush’
then, to learn that all report brisk business, helped partly by a backlash against today’s throwaway society and partly by an upsurge of interest in men’s grooming.
Their products are sold around the world and are available on Park Avenue as well as Park Lane. ‘People are buying quality, as opposed to the cheap, nasty stuff that falls apart in a couple of years,’ affirms Mr Broadway. These brushes are the sort with which Nanny urged young ladies to do ‘100 strokes every night’—although this is no longer recommended as, for most people, it could damage the hair (see box).
Mr Pearson reports that it took him two years to work in his own favourite brush: ‘The bristle is quite stiff and the way to soften it is to get the oil from your own hair into it.’ This faithful servant is now ‘about 25 years old’.
If your heirloom brush is starting to feel its age, Kent Brushes provides a re-bristling service and Mason Pearson can replace the rubber pad. However, all this tradition doesn’t mean the companies are wedded to the past. In fact, the popular Mason Pearson child’s brush wasn’t invented until 1981, at the request of some former neighbours of Mr Pearson’s, who wanted something for their infant son. The result has one, rather than two, lengths of bristle and is designed to go over, rather than through, the hair.
‘We’re innovating all the time,’ confirms Mr Pearson, ‘trying new nylons, new rubbers.’ Nylon, he adds, might be preferable to natural bristle, depending on your hair type—there is a brush-selector tool on the Mason Pearson website, which will prescribe the right one for your hair type, hand size and personal preferences.
Traditional men’s brushes—the military style, without handles, that used to come in pairs—are selling particularly well (think of matinée idols brushing their hair back in two wings over the ears). The turnover of Broadway Silversmiths’ engraved military brush has tripled in the past 18 months and Kent Brushes has also seen increased interest in its men’s grooming products.
‘Kent hadn’t made a beard-specific brush in nearly 50 years,’ divulges Mr Cosby. ‘When it became clear that beards were very much back, I sat down, sketched out my interpretation of a brush for today’s gentleman and put it to market. It was an instant success.’
One of these companies’ brushes is at once a touchstone with the past and an heirloom in the making, solid and familiar in the hand, light on the hair and decorative on the dressing table. ‘You’ve seen her brushes, haven’t you?’ says Mrs Danvers to the nameless second wife in Rebecca. ‘I used to brush her hair for her every evening. It came down below the waist when she was first married. Mr de Winter used to brush it for her then. “Harder, Max, harder,” she would say, laughing up at him.’ Somehow, one can’t imagine Maxim doing so with a piece of coloured plastic.
Mason Pearson’s famous rubbercushion hairbrush is still made by hand, just as it was when the company was founded in 1885
Above: Broadway Silversmiths’ intricate brushes. Right: A Kent Brushes craftsman hand-shaping one of its products
Above left: The bristles at Kent Brushes are inserted by hand and each employee can produce 6–8 brushes per day. Above right: Hand-spraying the lacquer onto the wood