Anthrax, Shaving & the Horse Hair Brush

I was researching the benefits and drawbacks of the Horsehair shaving brush and I came across an interesting bit of history that might explain (at least part of) the reason why the Horse Hair Brush doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the Badger Hair or Boar Hair Brush.

To start with lets take a quick look at the Horsehair brush.  The Horsehair brush provides you with more than acceptable performance for – what is usually a decent price.  Most will find that the horse hair brush will perform better than their boar hair brush but fall just short of their silver tip and super badger brushes when it comes to water retention and overall feel to the brush.

Another benefit, at least for some, is that Horsehair brushes are animal ‘friendly’.  The horse is not harmed – hair is simply taken from its mane or tail.  On the other hand badgers and boars are both killed to obtain their hair.

So why is it that the horsehair brush, with its affordability, quality of lathering, and kindness to animals, not really register as well with classic shaving enthusiasts?  Anthrax.

That’s right – Anthrax.  The problem began during WWI.  Military personnel were issued shave kits with the unfortunate consequence with some of the shave brushes being produced with less care, and as a result carried some anthrax with it.  (Just for the record Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacterium that can be inhaled or ingested by grazing animals *).  A razor and infected brush are a deadly combination.

A NYTimes article from October 16, 1915, subtitled Bellevue Experts Find Dreaded Germs in Cheap Shaving Brushes Bought From Peddlers,  states that “a patient was admitted to Bellevue…with symptoms of anthrax eight days after using a new shaving brush.”  Further investigation of the brush “yielded germs which gave anthrax to a guinea pig.” The investigation went further to discover that of some 40 brushes purchased off street vendors 7% of them contained anthrax while an additional 78% contained what features closely resembling anthrax.  The article goes further by stating that “the fact remains that shaving brushes made of horsehair…constitute a source of danger.”  Not the greatest form of advertising for the horsehair brush.

Another NYTimes article from August 18, 1919, Shaving Brushes Anthrax Carriers, reported that the army reported “several cases of facial anthrax, undoubtedly due to shaving brush infection.” The article points to the need to properly sterilize all brush, especially Horsehair brushes, which is the reason why many brushes today horse hair, or otherwise state that they are sterilized. Like the previously mentioned article, this one issues a warning as well that “without a doubt there are now in the market brushes which are potentially dangerous.”  The horsehair brush didn’t stand a chance.

A few years later, The American Journal of Public Healthpublished a report stating that “the dangers from shaving brushes infected with anthrax spores has once more been painfully called to our attention.”  The article was a response to the death of a professor at the University of Copenhagen   Anthrax was found on his “dyed Chinese horsehair brush”, that was made to look like a badger haired brush.  The same article goes on to recount the war experience pointing out that the American army had a 149 cases – and as a result “certain cities forbade the sale, or handling of Horsehair brushes.”  Like the NYTimes articles, this report leaves its readers with a simple warning: “The new case…indicates a source of danger against which we should constantly be on our guard.”

The Horsehair brush would be left for the brave or uneducated.

A quick Google search will bring up many articles and stories from the WWI-1920 era.  One of the more interesting ones can be found here – discussing the death of Congressman Michael Francis Farley because of an anthrax infected brush.

Luckily for us, we have learned to purchase and produce sterilized Horsehair brushes and won’t run into and Anthrax in the future.  But I’m sure that more than a few of us will be thinking about this with our first pass of the brush.