Home Icons The World’s Most Beautiful Brush

What makes a strictly utilitarian object luxurious?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here.

The women in my family have a barbed sense of humor that most people would recognize in the elders of their immigrant families. The Tagalog words “Baduy” (unfashionable) and “Bruha” (witch) were often used to tease each other about the way we looked. As I got a little older and was allowed to grow my hair a few more inches, if ever I looked unkempt my grandmother would say I looked “bruha” and promptly hand me a brush.

My hair is thick, heavy and impossible to style. On the rare occasion I put in the effort, it returns to its original state over the course of a few hours. My mother had curly, Julia-Roberts-in-the-’90s hair and no knowledge to impart about how to care for my straight texture except to brush it.

The brushes I had in my possession were the kind you bought as an afterthought at the nearby pharmacy — an array of Goody paddle brushes come to mind. The average lifetime of a pharmacy hairbrush is one year, with Goody Hair Products suggesting that you replace your brush every six months as best practice. For context, it’s suggested to replace your toothbrush every three to four months. Though the way a hairbrush wears down may be less noticeable than a toothbrush, the wilting of bristles through use is similar. The brushes I used had non-stick handles and hollow, plastic bodies. Their bristles were plastic and spiky, with tiny epoxy ball-tips that would make a caustic, grating sound when run through my hair. I believed that with each harsh stroke, I was doing the work of taking care of my hair. The brushes did not stand up to these rigorous tests. The bristles would fall out and the ball-tips would go missing and do more harm than good. I blew through several in high school.

Often, the world of technology feels like a murky universe of endless equations — to what end will we be satisfied?

As I got older, much like a home cook grows out of their 30-dollar cast iron to invest in a more reliable Le Creuset, I felt it was time to discard my drugstore brush. Some spend hours doing extensive research and perusing customer reviews for a new television or laptop. I invest that time in beauty products — I reach for my hair brush the same way one might reach for their phone. Both are also tools that people rely on to feel like themselves.

I could never understand how to use a smartphone or watch to its full functionality: My usage is based on whether something does the job I need it to do, and my curiosity never extends beyond that. Often, the world of technology feels like a murky universe of endless equations — to what end will we be satisfied? The quality of a beauty tool is easily measured by how well it performs, and for how long. But these questions yield just as many consumer options. A study done in 2011 showing the statistical analysis of hair breakage proved the obvious, that different combs and brushes will affect your hair differently depending on their structure. Researchers say the spacing between the bristles has a big influence, also noting that different bristle materials can cause different types of abrasions. Though there are paddle brushes, round brushes, vented brushes, just to name a few, with boar bristles, plastic bristles, wooden bristles, mixed bristles. And thousands of testimonials proclaiming the best brushes to buy.

A few years ago, after a couple of conversations with hairdressers, they all revealed that the one brush in their arsenal was called the Mason Pearson. It was some kind of trade secret: Its lore was that it would smooth and shine your hair, while spreading the natural oils from root to end. This kept your hair fresher for longer, while contributing to a healthier scalp. Once you bought one, it would stay with you for a lifetime. This comes at a cost: The smallest “Pocket” size runs for about a hundred dollars, while the larger sizes can go for just under three. That’s the price of “130 years of craftsmanship,” and it partly accounts for the brush’s popularity among models, movie stars, and the otherwise very wealthy. In New York Magazine, actor Debi Mazar named the Mason Pearson as one of 50 things she can’t live without, “My mother used Mason Pearson brushes. Now I use them, and so do my daughters.”

To some, this would be an extortionate amount of money to spend on something seemingly frivolous. I might say the same about a smartwatch. Much like a shiny new tech device might feel for some, this old-fashioned hair brush felt like the object my life needed most. I became obsessed with acquiring one.

Hairbrushes as we know them are a fairly modern invention. One of the first brush manufacturers, Kent Brushes, has been producing since 1777, with their first brushes taking upwards of 12 people to complete just one. Often seen in portraits of society women in front of their vanities, the brush was a luxury object. Over the next 150 years, patents were still coming through for slight modifications like vents or synthetic bristles. In the U.S., Lyda D. Newman, a Black inventor and suffragist, put in a patent in 1898 for a brush using synthetic bristles and a removable back to make it easier for cleaning. Her innovation paved the way for other Black women in beauty like Madam C.J. Walker. More ornamental hair brushes, such as those patented by Hugh Rock in 1854, were plated in silver with elaborate designs and often given as gifts to new brides. Sets were complete with brush, comb, and handheld mirror. For those that can be persuaded, a 1930s Art Deco silver set from Tiffany & Co. can still be found at auction for over $1,500.

In contrast, 20 percent of the world’s hairbrushes can now be traced back to one factory in Xiamen, China. The Tong Fong Brush Factory is the largest manufacturer of brushes in the world, churning out five million brushes per month and supplying recognized names such as Conair and Babyliss. According to the factory’s informational video, each stage of the brush is made in separate departments with a sleek efficiency that only machines can allow. The goal is “continuous innovation,” meaning faster, cheaper, and yielding a larger output.

Mason Pearson’s reputation rests on the idea that the hairbrush reached its apex a hundred years ago

Elsewhere, “innovation” resonates similarly to its use within tech circles. In 2018, the appliance company Dyson, supposedly the pinnacle of luxurious utility, introduced the Airwrap styler, made to attract hair and create curls without high heat. It comes with several brush and curling attachments for the hefty sum of $550 — some might say the Tesla of beauty tools. Dyson’s language includes words like “engineered,” “digital motor,” and “intelligent,” though the Airwrap looks like every other hair wand on the market. As recently as this year, Dyson moved its headquarters to Singapore to increase manufacturing, taking over the site of St James Power Station, Singapore’s only coal-fired power plant. New technology, taking over the old.

Mason Pearson’s reputation rests on the idea that the hairbrush reached its apex a hundred years ago. The company’s namesake was an engineer from Yorkshire, who moved down to London during the industrial revolution to work at British Steam Brush Works in the city’s East End. In 1885 he won the silver medal at the International Inventions Exhibition in London for his automatic brush boring machine, which made the largely manual process move a touch faster by creating accurate holes in the brush body. Pearson’s initial design has stayed more or less the same ever since: The brushes for sale today Harrods and Neiman Marcus are still finished by hand, using the methods first patented with its founder. 

It is a beautiful object. In fact, the New York Times called it “The most beautiful brush in the world.” Mason Pearson brushes come in four colors, but the classic is dark ruby. The cellulose body looks like a lacquered black until held to the light to reveal a deep red. The brush is still hand-polished and made in limited quantities, with the logo stamped in hot foil. They all share a patented coral cushion that makes it recognizable from any other brush, like the red sole of a Louboutin shoe. This cushion is pneumatic, meaning it operates using pressurized air. Those that swear by Mason Pearson say it stimulates the scalp and improves circulation.

There are three varieties of tufts: boar bristle, nylon, and a combination of the two. Bristles are sourced as a by-product from the meat industry, as well as from wild boars during moulting season in India and China. Wild boars will scratch their backs against bark and rocks while leaving remnants of their bristles behind. Though most boar bristles for hair brushes are collected this way, Mason Pearson’s Victorian history lends a colonial tinge to the process. The brand has never done extensive marketing or PR, and in an interview with Allure, Michael Pearson — Mason’s grandson — says, “We can’t make enough brushes to capitalize on it, so what’s the point?” Their annual production runs from 200,000 to 300,000 a year. Reminded that their brushes are used by all the top hairstylists and backstage at runway shows, Pearson seems bemused: “Yes, it’s curious isn’t it?” When pressed to comment for this piece, a representative for Mason Pearson said, “We do not disclose details of our brush-making process or our machines.”

On one chilly November night, a group of friends invaded a small bar for my birthday. A few of them led me down a staircase and handed me a gift bag. Apparently, while my laptop was unattended they had gone through my search history to find the one thing I’d been obsessing over for months. They had all chipped in on my very own Pocket-sized Mason Pearson brush.

The box it came in appeared to have been made in the late 19th century, with an illustration of the brush that looks like a drawing in a Victorian picture book. It’s in stark contrast to the current pastel, sans-serif design trends. The packaging lends itself to words like “heritage” and “bespoke.”

I was so touched by their thoughtfulness that I kept the brush close as the night went on. As we went from house to party to dancefloor, I would take the brush to my hair as an afterthought. The bond was sealed.

The sensation of brushing my hair is one that produces a sense of calm. With each stroke I feel as though I am putting myself together, like smoothing down my clothes after sitting for too long. I’ve done it on street corners, in line at the bank, and of course, at bars. I’ve asked men who I’ve only known for a few weeks to take a hack at it. They gingerly take my Mason Pearson into their hands and run it through my hair.

Living alone over the past year made me understand the hold spontaneous touch from others has on me. I brushed my hair on my way to the kitchen, or on a long-distance phone call. It was not to adjust my appearance — who would see me? — but out of comfort. I missed touch. Most associate ASMR with videos of people whispering into microphones and an auditory sensation. It can also occur with hair brushing. A survey study done in 2015 found that along with traditional techniques, hair brushing also “elicited tingles in over half of the 450 individuals with ASMR that they studied.” Before the pandemic, a Toronto woman was offering hair-brushing sessions for just under a dollar a minute. “I’m very interested in the idea of a caring touch, non-sexual touch,” she explained to The Kit. “I feel like we’re really starved for that.”

There are several images that come to mind when I think of women brushing their hair. Most of the time it is a solitary woman in front of her mirror — where a woman regards herself in a private moment. The French Impressionist Edgar Degas was fascinated with this kind of scene. Women in the midst of preparing themselves feature heavily in Degas’s work, second to his ballerinas. Often called a variation of “Femme a sa Toilette,” these women brush their hair, lean over a wash basin, and dry themselves off. Though the subjects are nude, the paintings do not give a sexual air. They capture the gentle intimacy of tending to yourself, when the door is closed.

To me, femininity is in the process of creating, assembling, and curating ideas of beauty — the antithesis of optimization

Degas wrote of these works, “It is the human animal preoccupied with itself, like a cat licking itself […] My women are simple creatures and honest too, and are concerned with nothing except their physical occupation.” To those who have never tried their hand at femininity, it may seem defined by its final product. That women often sit at a table called a “vanity” speaks to how pejoratively we regard the process. Though society prefers us to forget, an integral part of femininity is the ritual of its making. As Diana Vreeland writes, “The girls keep looking in the mirror…which is all right by me. I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.”

Beauty technologies are often marketed as ends-oriented, and only as good as their results — that is, after all, how I began my research into a more qualified hair implement. Dyson’s Airwrap is made to simultaneously dry and style your hair, eradicating the long process of hot rollers or the use of round brushes. Though similarly high-end, compared to the Mason Pearson, there is a lack of intimacy and tenderness in the object. To me, femininity is in the process of creating, assembling, and curating ideas of beauty — the antithesis of optimization. Such innovations both sanitize and professionalize a routine that in some ways needs no improvement.

The process of getting ready is best experienced when one is able to luxuriate in the ceremony. Being raised by a young, single mother made the concept of taking one’s time crystal clear. In the mornings while sharing the one bathroom in our two-bedroom apartment, our routines overlapped. I would wait impatiently to brush my teeth as my mother stood in front of the mirror coiffing and spraying. She took her time and because of this she was always late. Her hair routine took several years to perfect, especially after an ill-advised perm in the ’80s. After taking a towel to her wet hair she would throw her head down, take a handful of mousse, and scrunch the ends of her hair to shape the curls, then use a diffuser to blow dry. She’d say, “What’s the point of getting there on time, if you don’t look yourself?” She’d run out the door in a cloud of perfume to a cab waiting downstairs. For my mother, glamor and luxury were well within our reach although very much beyond our means. She instilled in me the fact that I should not waste my time with something that was not well made. If I could help it, hold out for the best — and if you had to be tricky about it, so be it.

Over the years I’ve honed a skill for collecting luxury clothing. I loved the legacy of Margiela’s Tabi boot and the kaleidoscope of Missoni’s weave. Similar to my research for the perfect hair brush, I put effort into acquiring pieces from specific houses like Prada or Comme des Garçons. I spent hours scouring the many resale sites and auctions for what I wanted. Some questioned this pursuit — was it a symptom of conspicuous consumption or snobbery? It felt simpler than that. For one, I love beauty, and if there was a way to have a beautiful object in my possession, I would find it. Secondly, I loved these objects’ glittering pasts. There was a lineage of beauty and glamor that I wanted in on. To me, it was not just a Chanel bag. It was a conduit to mapping myself across the histories of these design houses with a sense of mischief. I was never the intended audience, but look whose sticky fingers had it now. I was finagling my way into luxury.

The Mason Pearson tagline is “A brush with history.” It’s the perfect example of luxury and glamor embedded in an object of good manufacturing, strengthened by the company’s long endurance. As Michael Pearson said, “This is a utilitarian product: It’s a hairbrush.” The graceful, painless movement it takes from root to tip is all I need as evidence for its merit. Maybe the brush had never been made for me, but I used it every day — a small slight to its ingrained Victorian prejudices. Its legacy was so unlike my own, and I could possess it.

This bid to carve out my own collection of storied objects is an obsession. Much of my spare time is devoted to a never-ending search for particular pieces, often from historic collections, famous magazine spreads, or film scenes. One of my favorite finds is the same Vivienne Westwood suit that Carrie Bradshaw wears in the famous “Drunk at Vogue” episode in season four of Sex and the City. Just last week I recognized a Roberto Cavalli jacket on Poshmark as the same one Naomi Campbell wears in a photo from 1997, resplendent in fur trim, and carrying a crocodile Hermès Kelly. The next time I looked, it had sold for under asking price, which produced feelings of terrible remorse — as though I had missed out on not just a garment but a small, enduring sliver of a glamorous moment. I share the fanaticism and excitement I get from this kind of search with those who line up for hours for the latest model of iPhone. Be it the past or the future, we are both trying to place ourselves in history by acquiring a little piece.

Marlowe Granados is a writer and filmmaker. She co-hosts The Mean Reds, a podcast dedicated to women-led films, and her advice column, “Designs for Living,” appears in the Baffler. Granados currently resides in Toronto. Happy Hour is her debut novel.