Painters and Their Brushes

Emil and John Henry Wilkens in their professional uniforms. Photograph. Ca. 1910. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Emil and John Henry Wilkens in their professional uniforms. Photograph, ca. 1910. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the steadfast brush remained the painter’s primary tool of choice. An 1886 manual for “those who wish to do their own work” acknowledged that readers would “find brushes in the stores that will serve your purpose, and can then be cast aside, for a trifling sum.” Already some painters had the desire and means to use and dispose of low-cost brushes after certain jobs. However, the manual suggested that “it would be better to ‘get good ones,’ for they are the cheapest in the long run.”

Emil B. Wilkens, decorator, Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph. 1930s. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Emil B. Wilkens, decorator, Bowling Green, Ohio. Photograph, 1930s. The Wilkens Family Collection.

The 1886 manual also stressed the need for proper cleaning and care of brushes, which reflected a theme that remains in paint supply literature today. My great-great-grandfather John Henry passed down this ethic of care to my great-grandfather Emil, pictured, who then taught my grandfather Richard the tricks of the trade. Like others in their trade, each Wilkens painter signified his professionalism and cleanliness by donning white.

Illustration of brush packaging from "Paints, Varnishes and Brushes" catalog. Paper. Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. 1923. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library, TP937 P69 TC.

Illustration of brush packaging from “Paints, Varnishes and Brushes” catalog. Paper, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, 1923. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library, TP937 P69 TC.

The Wilkens men and their fellow professionals would have read catalogs that boasted tools of various sizes, styles, and materials. Professional and amateur painters alike preferred Chinese hog hair for brush bristles, but other options included camel, horse, ox, badger, and even squirrel hair. Each supply company touted the quality of its products and packaging to potential consumers. Painters who read supply catalogs likely knew from years of experience which brushes were truly top-of-the-line and which were lower-quality “value” options.

Do-it-yourself authors have usually assumed that their audiences prefer to invest in long-lasting durable products. Present-day discussions of painting supplies continue to weigh retail price against perceived quality on the assumption that DIY painters will care for their tools. However, a market for low-cost painting supplies made with cheaper materials has existed since at least the late 1800s.

 

"Giant Value Brushes" advertisement from a merchandising catalog. Paper. Superkleen Brushes. 1938. Courtesy the Hagley Muesum and Library, .S9626 1938 TRCAT.

“Giant Value Brushes” advertisement from a merchandising catalog. Paper, Superkleen Brushes, 1938. Courtesy of the Hagley Museum and Library, .S9626 1938 TRCAT.

 

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