Soaproot Brushes from Ethnographic California
Soaproot Brushes from Ethnographic California

July 31, 2015: Soaproot Brushes

These soaproot brushes were collected by Clinton Hart Merriam on his travels through California in the early 20th century. Soaproot, Chlorogalum sp., has elongated underground bulbs surrounded by tough fibers. These fibers are used to make brushes like the ones seen here.

The fibers are arranged in the same direction and bound temporarily with a twig. Cordage is then used to bind the fibers together and make a handle. The bulb of the soaproot plant is crushed up to make an adhesive, which is applied thoroughly to the handle and left to sit in the sun for a few days, giving it the hardness and lacquered texture. Pine pitch could also be used instead of the soaproot adhesive.

Brushes like these were useful for cleaning out the hard-to-reach nooks on the surface of baskets, where acorn meal or mush could get stuck, and they were a valuable part of a basketry set. Additionally, soaproot brushes were used as hair brushes.

Soaproot had a number of applications. Besides being used as an adhesive, soaproot was used as a toxin to stun fish, as it contains chemicals that inhibit the uptake of oxygen by a fish’s gills. Mashed-up soaproot bulbs were thrown into a body of water and the stunned fish were collected as they rose to the surface. Soaproot was also used for food, medicine, and (unsurprisingly) soap.

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