The Noble Comb: How ABMA and its Members assisted the Allies in WWII

Tue March 14, 2017

As ABMA Celebrates our 100th Anniversary we proudly present our final installment in our Celebration Series. The previous installments celebrated our founding member companies who are still in existence today...

The Noble Comb

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On Sunday, December 7, 1941, war hit American shores and launched the United States into one of its most transformative eras to date. Besides inspiring the invention of the computer, establishment of McDonald's and discovery of Marilyn Monroe, World War II ignited US industry to organize and innovate like never before. Giants, like steel, were obviously important but little did the US know how indispensable the unassuming brush trade was to production lines - and, ultimately, to winning the war.

In early 1941, a group of manufacturers from the Paint Brush Division of the American Brush Manufacturers Association sent representatives to Washington to discuss their concern of future shortages of the unique Chinese hog bristle, at the time, the only reliable source for brush bristles. Their meeting with the newly created Office of Production Management resulted in the formation of a Bristles and Brushes Section, but no action to secure bristles was taken at that time.

By July of 1941, just five months before Pearl Harbor, "Japanese assets were frozen in the US and the Japanese retaliated by imposing an embargo on all exports from North China," writes Merrill Denison, author of the treasured book, Bristles and Brushes. These exports included the inconspicuous but irreplaceable hog bristle.

"With further supplies cut off at the source, bristles had become the first raw material casualty of the undeclared war in the Pacific," Denison continues. 

Though the US had lost access to its hog bristle supply from the Orient, it still took a statistician from the Army and Navy Munitions Board to shed light on the far-reaching consequences. In his memorandum, this statistician warned that too much emphasis was placed on the 'bigger' industries, which would actually be rendered "unable to produce at all without equipment furnished them by smaller, and often little-known, industries," writes Denison.

For example, the statistician highlighted the import of worsted yarn, a staple of woolen uniforms. In order to properly clean, straighten and align individual wool filaments in a decent uniform, a tool called the Noble Comb was required. For a Noble Comb to work, it required a dabbing brush made of hog bristles, the very Chinese bristles that the US could no longer procure.

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"Quite suddenly bristles took on a new significance. Without dabbing brushes, there could be no Noble Comb; without the Noble Comb, there could be no worsted yarn; without worsted yarn, there could be no cloth, and without cloth, there could be no uniforms or none, certainly, suitable for the soldiers and sailors of the USA," writes Denison.

With this bit of data, Washington could no longer turn a blind eye to the dire straits of its bristle conundrum. While the government didn't understand the ins-and-outs of the brush manufacturing industry, it realized that brushes were vital to successful war production. For, without bristles, how could it outfit its fighters, paint its battleships, manufacture its airplanes, or even clean its teeth?

So Washington appointed Frank Walton, Deputy Chief of the Textile Section, to find a solution for replacing bristles in the dabbing brushes used in the Noble Comb. Walton recalled how earlier in 1941, a group of paint brush manufacturers had come to Washington heralding the need to secure hog bristles as a strategic material. Thanks to Walton's good memory and the "magic talisman" of the Noble Comb, the American Brush Manufacturers Association came to aid the United States Government.

"In response to the Walton appeal, the then president [of the ABMA], George Millard of the Fuller Brush Company, went at once to Washington to place himself and the resources of the Association at the disposal of the Office of Production Management," writes Denison.

In this meeting, Millard discovered how little Washington knew about brushes, while Walton was dumbfounded to learn the impact of such an unpretentious tool.

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In 1941, the 24-year-old ABMA had no less than 160 brush manufacturers and 45 associate members. Millard couldn't fill the demanding role Washington needed so he rallied Phillip Thayer, former president of the ABMA, to become lead problem-solver of the bristle crisis and brush quandary. Thayer's official title was Chief of Bristles and Brushes Section, Equipage Branch, Textile Division, OPM, and his main job was "to sell brushes to the war production mobilizers, and war to the brush makers."

Thayer worked tirelessly to organize the many divisions of the brush manufacturing industry. One of his many responsibilities was to take inventory of those special hog bristles used in the Noble Comb; he discovered that the US had less than three months supply.

On Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, Thayer was in Washington, drafting an order "to conserve the supply and direct the distribution of bristles." By Saturday, six days after Pearl Harbor, Conservation Order M-51 was authorized, helping to secure the proper bristles for brush makers, and thus save the production of the Noble Comb.

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Beyond obtaining supplies, Thayer needed all the help he could get to keep the brush industry alive, so he sought representatives from fellow ABMA members. Two of the founders would prove to be integral players on Thayer's team.

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First, the smaller Osborn Company of Cleveland would prove itself to be "as important to war production as those of any other single manufacturing unit in the entire country," with the introduction of a tiny power-driven end brush that would help to increase airplane assembly by 1,000 percent.

Meanwhile, the bristle crisis was about to be solved once and for all when Thayer acquired access to nylon filaments. With this commodity, the mighty Du Pont Company of Delaware could now undertake experiments with the ever-useful nylon and develop a synthetic replacement of the hog bristle.

"Regarded as little more than a possible substitute for bristle at the beginning of the war, nylon, upon its conclusion, had become a brush material in its own right, and for many purposes, superior to any other," writes Denison.

Restrictions on brush-making materials spanning from bristles to rubber, lumber to metal alloys, were lifted on January 10, 1946, when Conservation Order M-51 was revoked by the Civilian Production Administration. With this lift, the brush manufacturers could get back to business as usual. Perhaps the most welcome face of them all was that of the Fuller Brush Man, who could once again ring the doorbells of America.  

By the end of the war, the brush manufacturing industry was thriving with 400 manufacturing units and 12,000 employees soaring into a whole new world. Not only would America never be the same but its tradition of genius would send most industries emerging from the war stronger than ever. Nowadays, the story of the modest Noble Comb and the ABMA serves as a reminder to big American business that "there are no small parts; only small actors." Here's to another 100 years, ABMA!

About the Author – ABMA Celebration Series
----Noble Comb Joy Martin.jpg    Born in Denver and raised in Mississippi, Joy Martin considers the mountains home and Durango, Colorado, basecamp. Joy's lived, worked and played in over 50 countries collecting motley experiences that have provided her with resourcefulness, adaptability, and a couple of lifetimes worth of stories. A freelance writer since 2013, Joy's work appears on travel blogs and websites, and in high-altitude newspapers and magazines across the West. When not traveling or writing, she fancies exploring the San Juan Mountains by bike or skis with the man of her dreams, Nick Martin. Her days are typically capped off with yoga, whiskey or a soak in the hot tub. For writing style, portfolio and contact info, please visit her website,