Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses, published in A.D. 8, tells the story of King Midas who, when offered a gift from the god Dionysus, asked for the power of turning whatever he touched to gold. A tomb marked “MM,” which stands for “Midas Mound,” was discovered in modern day Turkey. Brass artifacts found in the tomb dated to the first millennium B.C. While the tomb is believed to be that of the father of King Midas who inspired Ovid’s poem, not the tomb of the king himself, the brass artifacts inside led art historian Dorothy Kent Hill to joke that King Midas’ gift must have actually been an early example of brass production.
Brass is the golden result when copper and zinc combine.
A Golden History
Greeks were using brass in Aristotle’s time, around 330 B.C., calling it oreichalcos. Oriechalcos was made by mixing bronze and tin with calamine, a zinc carbonate found on the shores of the Black Sea. The Romans first used brass, which they named arichalum, on a significant scale, crafting ornaments, decorative metalwork, armor, sesterces coins, and brilliant, gold-hued helmets.
Brass, which is extremely malleable, can be formed into the thinnest wire or the heaviest cannons and everything in between. The English sheriff of Cumberland made the first documented brass cannons in 1385. Brass has numerous qualities besides mere versatility. It is resistant to saltwater corrosion, making it an important asset to the shipping industry. It was used to protect the hulls of wooden ships from water and burrowing worms and to protect masts from lightning strikes. Brass, then as now, was also highly valued for any instrument requiring accuracy, such as clocks, watches, and compasses.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the woolen trade was particularly dependent upon brass to make wool cards. The paddle-like implements, resembling today’s dog or cat brushes, were spiked with little brass teeth. Wool was brushed between two cards over and over again until the wool fibers fell into uniform, parallel lines.
The earliest English examples of brass were imported from Flanders and Germany and used for ornate church decoration, such as that found in Westminster Abbey. Several different brass manufacturers, including Christopher Schutz, Jacob Monima, Daniel Demitreus, and the Goldscope Copper Mine, were allowed to produce copper and brass during the Elizabethan era. The monopolies these brass makers enjoyed stifled rather than enhanced the trade. As a result, brass wire was widely smuggled from other European countries.
Copper and brass businesses were destroyed during the dour Cromwellian rule from 1649 until Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658. Passage of the Mines Royal Act of 1689 removed crown monopolies on copper and brass manufacturing, and interest in the brass trade blossomed. Also in 1689, crowns, half-crowns, shillings, and sixpence were minted from brass. Following Cromwell’s death, Charles II returned to England to claim the throne. Charles had spent his exile enjoying the creations of European master craftsmen. His newfound love of flamboyant decoration kindled the desire for beautiful furnishings among his British subjects. Decorative brass knobs and drawer handles replaced traditional wooden knobs and iron rings on furniture, adding a touch of gilt without the golden price tag.
Before long, items made from brass encompassed nearly every area of life. This included beds, fire screens, buckles, carriage fittings, plumbing fixtures, whistles, taps, and gauges. Between 1740 and 1769, patents were granted for manufacturing brass wire and for the stamping press, paving the way for mass production of various brass items. Bristol established itself as an important early copper and brass manufacturing locale. In his article, “The Early History of Brass and the Brass Manufacturers of Birmingham,” W.C. Aitken emphasizes the connection between brass and Africa, writing, “Rings and ornaments of brass are the chief decorations of the belles on the banks of the distant Zambesi.”
Physician, missionary, and explorer David Livingstone’s writings corroborate Aitken’s account. In his “Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries,” he describes a woman wearing “eighteen solid brass rings, as thick as one’s finger, on each leg, and three of copper under each knee; nineteen brass rings on her left arm, and eight of brass and copper on her right.”
By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, Birmingham, England established itself as the epicenter of brass manufacturing. In explaining the Victorian preoccupation with death and “death furniture,” Aitken also describes an order from two South African palm oil potentates, named King I Am and Egbo Jack, for brass coffins. The coffins, nearly 7 feet long weighing 600 pounds, were polished, lacquered, and richly decorated with cast ornaments. They had four padlocks, two on the inside and two on the outside. The interior padlocks purportedly allowed the owners to lock themselves inside for “spiritual exercises.” Aitken surmises that the immediate use of the coffins was to store valuables until they were needed for their principal purpose.
In Europe, the use of brass expanded to beautify everyday items. Brass gilt was used to decorate brackets to hold glass shelves for store displays and to accent moldings, tables, cabinets, and clocks. It was also used to create sconces for musical instruments and to decorate call bells. Brass brackets and wire replaced use of a simple nail for mounting pictures on walls. Brass was even used in ladies’ fashion by sewing it into crinolines as a fire retardant.
A Metal of Many Uses
Today, the golden-colored copper and zinc alloy enhances everyday life. Brass is used in zippers, pulls, and buttons because of its strength, attractiveness, and resilience. It is durable and anti-corrosive and will not warp or wear down when exposed to water and washing. A unique added benefit is that it is naturally germicidal and antimicrobial, making it a perfect choice for doorknobs and other frequently touched surfaces.
Because it is not magnetic, brass is also the ideal choice for plumbing and marine hardware fittings and tools used near explosive gases. It is produced in three principal colors: yellow, gold, and rose or red. Yellow brass is used for decoration, faucets, bolts, keys, bowls, shelves, and costume jewelry. In instruments, yellow brass produces the bright sound of trumpet fanfare. Gold brass produces a broader, fuller sound. Rose or red brass does not project sound as well as other brasses but is typically used to make the leadpipe, the pipe nearest the instrument’s mouthpiece. Rose brass is also used in the construction industry for valves, sprinklers, and pump components.
Brass costume jewelry is popular for its similarity to gold and its low cost. Users do sometimes experience an unpleasant effect from wearing brass jewelry: it turns their skin green. This occurs because the copper content of the jewelry mixes with perspired acids on the skin, forming a copper oxide. While a bit unsightly, this reaction is not harmful and can be avoided. One way to prevent green skin is to paint the jewelry with clear nail polish. This does require reapplication from time to time, but it is effective. Another solution is to avoid applying lotions or perfumes when wearing the jewelry.
When it comes to interior decoration, brass has moved far beyond knobs and drawer handles. In the past 10 years, brass decor has enjoyed its first resurgence in popularity since the shiny 1970s. A welcome change from the recent trend of austere stainless steel, today’s brass features a toned-down golden sheen, exuding warmth and glamour that designers like Jonathan Adler, Michael S. Smith, and Kelly Wearstler embrace. Now is a fine time to pull out brass beds that may be loitering in storage and mix them with modern bedside tables, linens, rugs, and lamps for a refreshing blend of old and new.
Cleaning brass is easy and does not necessarily require a trip to the store. Many may be surprised to find that their “brassy” brass ornaments turn a lovely, pale, champagne gold with a little polishing.
Lacquered brass requires only a little rub with a damp cloth. Non-lacquered brass comes in a choice of finishes. Antique brass with a bit of tarnish is in vogue. However, if a shinier finish is preferred, several natural options are available using everyday items if official brass polish is not at hand. One is ketchup. Pour some ketchup onto a damp cloth and rub it over tarnished brass, clean the ketchup off with a damp cloth, and buff the piece dry. Another way to fight tarnish on a brass item is to make a paste. Using a teaspoon of salt dissolved into a half cup of vinegar, add enough flour to form a paste. With a rag, rub the paste onto the tarnished brass, wait 10 minutes, then wipe it with a clean, damp cloth and finally rub it dry. A final natural choice is straight lemon juice. Wipe the tarnished piece with a juice-soaked rag, then wipe it with a damp cloth and buff it dry. Polishing brass may take a little more elbow grease than polishing silver, but the beautiful golden glow is well worth the effort!
Always consult with an expert before cleaning an antique piece because polishing it or removing tarnish may reduce its value. With these tips in mind, anyone can enjoy the Midas touch of brass.