By Margo McCutcheon, Educator/Interpreter, Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site
Sam “Mr. Sam” Rayburn, the longest serving Speaker of the House in American history, was not known for having a full head of hair throughout most of his life. Yet, we have several brushes and combs in our artifact collection at the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site. Why?
Well, Mr. Sam had several family members living with him from the time the family built the house in 1916. Mr. Sam lived with his parents, sister Lucinda, and brother Tom at first. Then another brother, Will, moved in and a cousin, Minnie Eldridge, also lived with them for 10 years. In the 1940s, Mr. Sam’s sister Medibel and her husband S.E. Bartley moved in.
Of course, nieces and nephews also stayed at the Rayburn home over the years. All these people might have needed to use a brush or comb at one point. However, it doesn’t really matter how many people lived in the house because we’re talking about brushes and combs for anything but the hair on the Rayburns’ heads.
From now through December, stop by the Sam Rayburn House to view a selection of brushes and combs in our exhibit case that were used on clothes, horses, and even some things we’re not sure about. If you know anything about the items we have, please reach out and give us some insight into the brushes of the past!
We have a few hard-to-research items in our exhibit case. A small olive-green massage brush doesn’t have any maker’s mark, but brushes like it still exist today. Massage or scalp brushes help exfoliate the skin on the scalp, removing dandruff or dandruff symptoms and perhaps helping hair growth.
The small wooden nail brush in our display also doesn’t have a maker’s mark, but nail brushes are used to exfoliate skin around the nails as well as remove dirt and grime. With these scalp and nail brushes, someone in the Rayburn house probably cared about their skin health. We have no indication of what company made the smallest of our two whisk brooms, but it is definitely one of the cuter items we have.
A wire and stainless-steel cap keep the top of the broom together while below, machine stitching keeps the straw of the brush from falling everywhere. Whisk broom brushes are useful for cleaning clothing. Another example of a clothes brush is seen in the oblong ebony brush in our collection.
Faintly stamped along one side of this brush are the words, “SOLID BACK PARIS FRANCE.” Along the other side are the words, “REAL EBONY.” Although these words don’t name a manufacturer, the fact that this item is made of ebony is telling. Ebony wood grows mainly in tropical areas and is known for its durability, density, and beauty.
However, ebony trees are shorter than other trees, and don’t produce as much wood as a result. High demand and overharvesting made this type of wood expensive and scarce, so much so that some species of ebony are endangered or threatened with extinction.
The other, slightly larger whisk brush on display was made by the Kellog Brush Manufacturing Company of Westfield, Massachusetts, which also created the bottle brush in the exhibit. The words “Kellog Quality” are stamped upon both items. While whisk brushes were used on clothing, bottle brushes were specifically designed to fit down into bottles, cleaning areas a normal dish washing might miss due to the shape of the bottle.
The Rayburns’ pink and grey wire bottle brush with thin white bristles could move and bend with whatever bottle needed cleaning. Today, you can purchase specific bottle brushes made for certain sizes of pipes, tubes, cylinders, and more. The Kellog Brush company sold a variety of brushes for all sorts of household chores, and Ekco Group Inc. bought the company in 1993.
The Empire Brush Company, also called Empire Brushes, Inc., made the last clothing brush in our display. Amber in color, this lengthy brush features a wide tapering handle and black hog hair bristles in groups spaced out around the top of the brush. Stamped in the center of the brush handle are the words, “EMPIRE PAT.178.830 U.S.A.”
Headquartered in Port Chester, New York, during the 1930s, the Empire Brush Company moved its manufacturing plant to Greenville, North Carolina, in 1964 followed by its headquarters in 1980. This company ended its business in 1992, and Rubbermaid Inc. bought it in 1994. Empire’s company records, dating back to 1924, are archived at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
The longest object in our display case looks like a large bottle brush. A small, black handle connects with a long, twisted wire with black bristles at the end of the brush. People might use brushes of this length to clean dryer lint traps, radiators, sink drains, or refrigerator coils. However, the Rayburns did not have a dryer or a radiator. Was this brush for a sink drain or a refrigerator, or were there other uses for this kind of brush?
Whatever its use, this particular brush was built to last because it was manufactured by the Fuller Brush Company. Alfred Fuller first sold brushes door-to-door for the Somerville Brush and Mop Company, listening to customers as they described the brushes they needed for certain household chores. Fuller then created the Capitol Brush Company in 1906, which eventually became the Fuller Brush Company. Fuller Brush salesmen were known as the “Fuller Brush Man” due to the magazine The Saturday Evening Post. In 1922, the “Fuller Brush Man” became a character in comic strips, cartoons, and films. Fuller brushes are meant to last, and the company still exists today.
One of the more interesting items in our collection is the Combination Vacolite Brush. The top of this device has two ends, like a hammerhead shark. On one side, you can see brush bristles surrounding a hole, and looking into the hole, you’ll see a circle of what looks like metal razor blades that are slightly curved.
Underneath this section of the device is a square hole. On the other side of the device is a glass orb. The brush side of this item is a small vacuum, and the square hole underneath it is where you place a small vacuum bag. The glass orb is a flashlight. An advertisement in The Billboard newspaper in June 1956 from a wholesaler selling the device said that the Vacolite used standard flashlight batteries, weighed less than one pound, and could be used in the home, office, or car. Finding information about this unique item was difficult. A company called Vacolite existed in Dallas, but they manufactured hearing aids during the 1940s.
A company called Pilot Star sold a Light Brush that looks exactly like this Vacolite, but that does not help us because the Rayburn family chose the Vacolite over the Light Brush in the great vacuum-light manufacturing battle of the mid-20th century. Although we still have many questions about this brush, it’s always interesting to see new technology from the past that people today might want for themselves.
Someone hand-made the curry comb in our exhibit case, but the person who made it could’ve been a Rayburn, a worker on their farm, or a friend. People use curry combs to groom horses, removing any sweat, dust, mud, or other substances that gather on the horse.
Companies manufacture curry combs out of different materials such as rubber, plastic, and metal. Horses can be sensitive to different types of curry combs, and every horse has sensitive parts of their body (like the face and below the knees) where curry combs should be used with care. The Rayburn curry comb is made from bottle caps from popular soft drink companies, cork board, a piece of wood, and a leather handle.
The Rayburns owned several horses, and a horse corral was once located where the smokehouse on the property is now. Oral histories from Rayburn family members and workers mention the horses Silver and Tijuana, and the Electra Chamber of Commerce in Electra, Texas, gifted Mr. Sam the horse, Whistle Stop, in 1950.
We also have a certificate from the Tennessee Walking Horse Breed Association of America stating that Mr. Sam received a registered roan mare Tennessee Walking Horse named Mabel’s Rose Bud from W.B. Garrett of Chapel Hill, Tennessee, in 1942. Hopefully, this kind of curry comb left the Rayburn horses feeling refreshed after a day of riding.
The brushes and combs in our display are both familiar and strange, but all were created for a particular use. These items show how the Rayburn family utilized many different brushes to maintain a healthy and clean lifestyle. Visit us at the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site to see these brushes along with more Rayburn artifacts that tell the story of a 20th-century family living in North Texas.
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