From the 1880s through the 1950s, light industry helped North Omaha become the most important residential area in the city. A large group of factories once filled the territory between North 16th Street and North 33rd Street just south of Ames Avenue. One of these factories was nationally noted, and employed a lot of people over the decades. This is a history of the U.S. Brush Company factory in North Omaha.
Building a Better Brush
Adolph R. Wiens (1856-1921) was a master brush maker who started several factories in the industry. From the 1880s through the 1920s, Wien was a recognized brush making leader in the Midwest. This was a time when brush making was regarded as a growing technology, and included everything from straw brooms to steel brushes, paint brushes, tooth brushes and lots of other tools. After starting a factory in Watertown, Wisconsin (1905-1912) and the North Brush Company factory of Duluth, Minnesota (1913-1917), A. R. Wiens knew something about making brushes. Wien learned the business with his brother J. P. Wien, who incorporated the Milwaukee Dustless Brush Company in 1901. The elder brother patented his invention in 1895. His brother Adolph had more than a dozen patents on brooms, brushes, swatters and other instruments that he filed before moving to Omaha. Using capital from his previous endeavors, Wiens the younger strove to build his fortune by moving to Omaha.
“Somewhere on the Belt Line a permanent home will be erected for the Wiens Omaha Brush Co. in time,” declared the Omaha World-Herald in October 1917. Right away, Wiens and A. B. Cook incorporated the company with $100,000 in stock. Their declared purpose was the manufacture of fiber brushes, brooms and mops.
Early in 1918, the Wiens Omaha Brush Company opened a new factory at 4301 North 28th Avenue. Located strategically along the Belt Line Railway, the factory was the first plant in the western United States to manufacture dairy brushes, which made Omaha second only to New York City in the nation’s production of the tools. The Belt Line offered easy access for shipping to the nation’s markets, and the plant was immediately successful.
Sadly, Adolph R. Wiens died suddenly at his home at 1628 Pinkney Street in 1921.
By 1923, the plant was struggling and had to be reorganized. Carl Julius Nagl (1890-1967), an engineer and later, treasurer for Wiens Omaha Brush Company, became the new president of the new company. Emerging as the U.S. Brush Company, it starved to find business that could make it grow.
Globalization Hits North Omaha
Although a lot of people have said otherwise, globalization is not a new phenomenon, and the US Brush Company is proof. By the late 1920s, the plant began manufacturing a new kind of mascara brushes. A 1930 tariff act against Japan added a duty on each “toilet brush,” forcing Japanese manufacturers out of the game they’d dominated for years. These “toilet brushes” were manufactured with quills and didn’t last long.
In 1931, the U.S. Brush Company took up a contract for the brushes and continued working with more success. Designing a new way to build the brush and a new machine to do the job, the factory became the only manufacturer of this new type of brush. The newspaper said the factory “bloomed after years of struggling,” and the plant grew from 15 employees to 200 within a few years.
Company president Nagl found out the Japanese manufacturers of the old brushes copied his design, and was going to sell them in New York City for half the cost of the U.S. Brush Company products. Protesting to the US Customs Court that the products were mislabeled, Nagl was initially successful at arguing his company should be allowed to monopolize the business in the U.S. This success allowed the U.S. Brush Company to grow its business, and they became the exclusive manufacturer of nail paint brushes in the county. They expanded their beauty products manufacturing too, and within a few years, they were making emery boards, orange wood sticks, and nail polish brushes. Every nail polish maker in the U.S. used brushes made in North Omaha.
However, in 1939 the US Customs Court in NYC decided the brushes made at the factory were not actually toilet brushes, but camel hair pencils instead. Undercutting his prices by more than 50%, the Japanese manufacturers were able to pay workers .03¢ per hour, instead of the .30¢ per hour the U.S. Brush Company paid its workers. In March 1939, Nagl estimated his company would have to he would have to lay off more than 1/2 of his workforce within two weeks because of the undercutting.
Closure and Demolition
The factory survived the tariff battle, likely because of Japanese aggression leading and increased tariffs against the empire leading to World War II.
At the end of the war, Nagl split off his interest in the company and eventually it was bought by Cheseborough-Pond’s, Inc. in New York City.
Carl Nagl launched Nagl Manufacturing Company in 1945 at 2126 Cuming Street, and that company continues producing similar products to what Nagl had engineered for the U.S. Brush Company in the 1930s. The company said he was “The father of the cosmetic brush industry in this country,” and according to his obituary, “Mr. Nagl developed and built nearly every type of cosmetic brush machinery used in this country before 1946. He manufactured the first brushes made outside of Japan.”
In 1952, Nagl employed 70 people, and U.S. Brush employed 120. It seems like they were making similar products and splitting the market in the process.
Staying open for another 25 years, the U.S. Brush Company factory at North 28th and Boyd Streets closed in 1966. Cheseborough-Pond’s consolidated the plant with two others in a new facility built in Jefferson City, Missouri, and 100 people lost their jobs at the North Omaha factory.
Late that year, the Omaha Economic Development Agency received the building as a gift from Cheseborough-Pond’s, which in turn gave it to Omaha Public Schools. The district proposed demolishing the building and replacing it with a new 20,000 square foot structure to be used for adult education. While the demolition happened quickly, a new building was never constructed.
Today, there’s a storage lot located on the site of the one-time beauty manufacturing giant that made products for the world right in North Omaha. There’s no historical marker or other memory of the corporation, and this is the only history available.
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