Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Champion Hair Picker in Action!

Continuing the theme of historic mattresses (see previous blog), I recently took a field trip to see a historic piece of equipment called "The Champion Hair Picker" that was essential to the upkeep of historic mattresses.

You may be wondering what a hair picker does and why it is an important tool for mattresses.  How does it operate and what is its purpose?  Does the image below give you any clue?

Keep reading to find out...

It may not be obvious at first glance, but a hair picker is used to fluff the horsehair used in historic seat cushions and mattresses.  For families like the Mills' who could afford it, mattresses might have been taken apart every 2-3 years, fluffed with a hair picker and then re-assembled.  The hair picker was also used to remove unwanted materials from hair before it was stuffed.  In the video posted below, it is clear that even a small amount of hair produces dust.  For a full size mattress, this must have been a nose clogging operation!  Horsehair enters through the front of the machine (see left) and the operator must crank the machine until all of the horsehair goes through the roller with spikes (see right), which helps to separate the hair and fluff it.

The roller is where the horsehair enters the machine
These spikes will pick apart the horsehair.

This hair picker is owned (and operated in the video at the end of this entry) by Diane Welebit of Barset Furnishings & Upholstery in Arlington, Vermont.  She received the hair picker from Historic New England, in Boston, made it operable, and plans to use it for her upholstery business.  I traveled nearly two hours to see this hair picker and while that may seem to be an excessive amount of travel just to see a single artifact, I am pleased at how much I was able to learn from Diane and from watching/operating the hair picker.

Horsehair is not a common seat cushion or mattress choice these days with the option of newer synthetic materials, but you will find historic chairs and mattresses stuffed with horsehair.  Horsehair today has also become very expensive.  It can cost anywhere between $75 and $300 a pound depending on the quality. Horsehair may attract insects and pests, but it lasts forever.  Many upholstery experts working with horsehair today just use their hands to re-fluff horsehair, but when horsehair was the predominant material used in mattresses and seat cushions, a hair picker was vital to keep up production speed.

While visiting Diane she started to re-fluff the horse hair from a window seat cushion that she is in the process of restoring.

Diane removes the horsehair from the window seat cushion to put it through the hair picker.

The horsehair needs to go through the hair picker at least 2 or 3 times and the pictures below illustrate how the volume of the horsehair increased each time through the machine.

There are currently very few hair pickers in operation in the United States, but this article tells a great story about the hair picker used at the U.S. House of Representatives Upholstery Shop.  The U.S. Senate Upholstery Shop used to have a hair picker, but they now purchase new horsehair instead.  Members of the House have 1930's era Turkish chairs in their offices and each took 80 hours of work to restore.  The shop also has thousands of chairs and sofas to repairs and refurbish each year.  Lawmaking isn't the only thing happening in Congress!

To fully understand how the hair picker operates, watch the video (demonstrated by Diane Welebit)!

Though rare today, horsehair mattresses are not obsolete! Charles H Beckley, Inc in New York City specializes in hand filled horse hair mattresses; their hallmark for over 80 years.  They still use traditional construction and production methods including a hair picker!


  1. I owen Kustom Kraft upholstery & odd goods in Huntington West Virginia,, I drove 6 hours to Gettysburg Pennsylvania to buy one of these,, to use as a show piece in my upholstery shop, I have a electric picker from the 1950s I use in the shop.

  2. I have a 50s picker at my shop