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The Labour and Wait Brush Museum

April 16, 2011
by the gentle author

When connoisseurs of traditional hardware, Simon Watkins and Rachel Wythe-Moran, opened Labour and Wait in Spitalfields ten years ago, the very first item of stock to arrive in their shop was a wooden handbrush,  but – as you can see from the picture above – there have been developments over the intervening decade. “Rachel’s been obsessed with brushes for years,” revealed Simon with a candid smile, “So one day I said, ‘Why don’t we start collecting them and have a Brush Museum?”

The notion was a brush with genius, and today when you visit their shop in the former Dolphin Pub in Redchurch St you can see a selection of fine specimens from the Labour and Wait Brush Museum occupying a space above the staircase – guaranteed to have any brush lover bristling with delight.

Just like Sir William Hamilton’s small collection of Greek vases that became the origin of the British Museum, these modest artifacts speak eloquently of their culture and society. Already the Brush Museum has won a cult following in Tokyo where Simon and Rachel displayed their collection as part of a Labour and Wait pop-up shop which also included demonstrations of the English Tea Ceremony, complete with mugs of builders’ tea with milk, served with Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. Seeking new acquisitions for the museum, Simon and Rachel visited a master brush maker in Osaka. “His workshop was pitch black, he had no storefront and the place stank of tar and woodsmoke – every surface was blackened – and in the middle sat this little man wrapping wire around cane to make his brushes.” enthused Simon in affectionate reminiscence as he cradled one of the brushes in question.

Simultaneously mundane and surreal, brushes are objects of universal fascination, indicative of a vast range of human activity and evolved into diverse shapes, sizes and materials according to their purpose. They are extensions of the hand with bristles in place of fingers, and their intriguing anthropomorphism reflects this function as substitute limbs. Our intimate relationship with brushes has imbued them with rich ambiguous poetry – from the loneliness of the sole toothbrush and the mystery of the witch’s broom, to the sensuous eroticism of bristles and the cheeky comedy of the tickling stick.

Over the last ten years, Simon and Rachel have sought out the last traditional makers around Europe to supply the extraordinary selection of new handmade brushes for sale in their shop, which are complimented by the growing museum display, creating a veritable temple of delight filled with treasures to delight the brush fancier.

A nineteenth century clothes brush by Jacob’s of Liverpool – from the museum.

A Japanese Plasterer’s Brush that can work in either direction –  from the shop.

A clothes brush with the enigmatic letters T A H in different coloured  bristles  – from the museum.

A pocket clothes brush produced by the Co-operative Society – from the museum.

A nineteenth century barber’s brush with soft bristles – from the museum.

A body brush, can be used wet or dry – from the shop.

London & North Eastern Railway issue 1946, expressive of austerity and utility – from the museum.

A travel coat hanger and clothes brush in one – from the museum.

Swedish Scrubbing Brushes – from the shop.

A brush by the master in Kyoto, for cleaning inside barrels and getting at odd angles – from the museum.

A Computer Brush with a soft side for the screen and a narrow side for between the keys – from the shop.

A soft Cobweb Brush with bristles of Skunk – from the museum.

This massive Scrubbing Brush is curved to allow grip with both hands – from the museum.

Japanese Vegetable Brush from Tawashi – from the shop.

Nineteen-fifties Crumb Sweeper, “the Crab” – from the museum.

A Swedish soft Mushroom Brush for removing the dirt  without hurting the fungi – from the shop.

Two nineteenth century clothes brushes with decorative bristle patterns – from the museum.

A sturdy German toilet brush – from the shop.

The Genie with its stiff wire bristles could easily do a lot of damage to your upholstery – from the museum.

Sailors’ Whisk Brush made in Ipswich – from the shop.

A Dish Brush by the Kyoto master – from the museum.

A Portuguese Toilet Brush, also ideal to accompany your dolly’s witch outfit  – from the shop.

A Hat Brush by Titterton, curved for ease of use – from the museum.

A Flowerpot Brush, essential to prevent cross-contamination between your pots – from the shop.

A stiff Cobweb Brush by Bettaware – from the museum.

A Bannister Brush – from the shop.

The Labour & Wait Brush Museum on tour in Japan.

Simon and Rachel in a group photo outside the Labour & Wait pop-up shop in Tokyo.

Bethnal Green’s  previous top brush shop, A.L.R.Marks Ltd – specialising in Skunk Dusters.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. April 16, 2011

    This is fascinating, and I admire your collection! From the intricate curves in the Banister to the simplicity of the Sailors’ whisk – all these brushes have a job to perform and story to tell. Their purpose is to care for our possessions, to nurture the objects of our daily life so that they may present themselves in the best working order.
    Reading this post made me immediately gather and line up the brushes I use in my bespoke tailor’s shop. I even have one brush to clean the others!
    Thank you for a lovely read.

  2. Jill permalink
    April 16, 2011

    There was a notorious murder in 1875 by Henry Wainwright, brushmaker of Whitechapel, the Bishopsgate Institute has a ballad about it.

  3. Gary permalink
    April 16, 2011

    My Uncle Will was a brushmaker in the 1920’s when they were made of animal bristles. He caught Anthrax from the bristles and was lucky to survive it in those days
    The Betterware Factory used to be in North Street, Romford, they also made polish and you could smell the healthy fumes for quite a distance.

  4. carol/liverpoolloon permalink
    April 17, 2011

    i used to know a little old lady in london who was the last person able to make hand made brushes for kent of london/kent hairbrushes & shaving brushes, she literally sat in the shop window making them all day long, i think she was the last one & this was back in the early 1980s

  5. July 10, 2017

    I purchased a old cloths brush at an estate sell this week end. Handle is metal enamel or painted with art nouveau or edwardian design on the part that holds the brush, design also have flowers and art deco designs. Bristles are in excellent condition, they are black and shades of tan. Also the best part is the steerhide cover is in fabulous condition stamped in front with swirls evy plant encased in a triangle. Stitching is on the sides is a over and around kind of western look. Stamped steerhide on back bottom just under the hole to hang it with metal around the hole.
    Do you know anything about it, I sell on Ebay and Etsy. I have searched google, nothing is coming up like it at all.
    Thank you,

  6. Dennis Keen permalink
    February 5, 2018

    Hi I have ten brushes of different types that I have kept , from way back in the 1960s. They were sold off cheep at that time, when Beechwoods Ltd of Chesham made the decision to just make the hand made paint brushes at the Bellingdon Road factory. Four brush filling machines transferred to Spa Brushes in Alma Road Chesham, this company being part of the group, making tooth brushes and hair brushes of types. I have a few tooth brushes with the Spa name on them, Sorry to say I have no Spar hair brushes. Regards Dennis.

  7. Amber Humphreys permalink
    May 1, 2018

    I have a long bamboo handled brush with a wooden top set with bristles to clean ceilings and plaster work of cobwebs. I still use it. I would dearly love to know what material the bristles are made from so I can make and replace some of the missing tufts. Do you have an Email address where I can send a photo for identification ? Kind regards Amber.

  8. RHONDA BELL permalink
    February 6, 2023

    have come across two extremely old very small westart west germany wood and hair brushes approx 5 inches in length. Have a photo on my phone. not sure how to download on computer. My mobile is 0439495527. Would appreciate a text so I can send the photo to you for information.
    Regards Rhonda Bell.

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