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For The Home

Vintage Shaving Implements

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: February, 2014, Page 36
Photos by David B. Moore

This antique shaving kit dates back to around 1900 and belonged to the owner’s great grandfather. It features its original milk glass shaving cup and barber’s bottle. The mirror is removable; an old “Safety Razor” is clamped to the front.



These rudimentary tools are seducing collectors with their old-school charm

American politician Adlai E. Stevenson once said, “The best reason I can think of for not running for president of the United States is that you have to shave twice a day.”

Dull blades or sharp cuts have long stunted man’s pursuit of the baby bottom-smooth face—the battle against unwanted hair eliciting both pain and frustration.

The earliest mention of shaving dates to 30,000 B.C., when cavemen scraped at their beards with sharp-edged flint stones or plucked at them with seashell tweezers. The practice of daily shaving, however, originated with the Ancient Egyptians—a people fashionably shaved from head-to-toe. This practice not only served aesthetic purposes, but also reduced the spread of infection and disease in ancient times.

Even Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave as a defensive precaution, thwarting enemies’ attempts to grab their beards during combat; and it was rumored that he himself never entered into battle with so much as a five-o’clock shadow.

As shaving grew in popularity, unshaven men of remote societies were referred to as barbarians, meaning “the unbarbered.” By the 1800s, the steel straight razor—also known by the visceral nickname of “cut throat”—was the shaving tool of choice. It required considerable skill to use and needed regular sharpening with a honing stone and leather strop.

“Back in the day, barbers also were dentists and surgeons,” says Mike Ippoliti, Museum Director of the National Barber Museum Hall of Fame.
The Age of the Barbershop
The tricky skill of shaving with a straightedge razor made up the majority of a barber school’s curriculum, as the average man of the time visited a barbershop daily for a shave, accompanied by a hot towel, newspaper, cigar and, hopefully, good gossip.

The typical Victorian-era barbershop was well stocked with ceramic mugs used to hold glycerin-based soap cakes that were whipped into frothy lathers with a special brush. Clients would purchase a personal mug from their barbershop to reduce the spread of infection (although it is suggested that the unsterilized razors of naughty barbers were the true culprits).

A patron’s shaving mug remained at the shop, where it sat on a wall display between visits. It was no secret that the more mugs a barbershop had, the better the barber. Blank mugs were ordered from European companies, which were later hand-painted by skilled craftsmen in the U.S. to depict a customer’s profession or paternal connections.

Popular soap manufacturers of the time, such as Shulton Old Spice, also saw the advertising potential this could generate and would offer special giveaways of mugs displaying their company logos. Today, antique shaving mugs can range in value from $10 to $5,000.

Shaving brushes featured handles ranging from inexpensive plastic and porcelain, all the way to luxurious ivory and gold. Straightedge razors often boasted etched blades set in handles made of precious materials, such as tortoise shell or mother-of-pearl.

Photos - From left: This porcelain-handled brush was manufactured by Penhaligon in London—a company founded in the 1860s by William Henry Penhaligon, who served as “court barber” and “perfumer” to Queen Victoria. • A Bakelite badger and bristle-hair brush sits in its own stand. n This vintage Super Speed “Black Beauty” Gillette-brand razor from the late ’60s features an adjustable, numbered dial. • This antique honing strop has a wooden handle and a leather strip and was used to sharpen straightedge razors. • With its original red cardboard box, this vintage Durham Duplex Razor was manufactured in New Jersey and has a celluloid handle. • This straightedge razor sports an ivory handle.

Mike Ippoliti is the Museum Director of the National Barber Museum Hall of Fame in Ohio. The museum houses more than 1,500 razors and 700 ceramic shaving mugs. “You can have two razors that look identical, and one might be worth more simply because of who made it,” Ippoliti notes. “The location of the manufacturer, the quality of the steel, the handle material ... you have to educate yourself, or be an expert, to know what you’re really looking at.”

By 1901, the up-and-coming Safety Razor was the talk of the town. Its design included a small blade set perpendicular to its handle, resembling a miniature gardening hoe with a protective device positioned between the blade’s edge and one’s skin. This was further revolutionized when a Baltimore Seal Company salesman was struck with inspiration when he accidentally dropped his shaving razor, damaging the blade. Shortly thereafter, King Camp Gillette patented the design for the disposable razor blade, which remains popular today.

A 1937 Schick Injector Razor—complete with its original red-leather case—includes an Art Deco-style handle composed of amber-hued Bakelite.  n Barber bottles—such as this cobalt blue Mary Gregory piece—were used between 1870 and 1920, and held cologne, tonics and occasionally alcohol. n A doctor’s mug sits next to its original wood-handled brush.
A Modern-Day Resurgence
The methods and tools of “old school” shaving have propagated the collecting bug in a new generation of budding shaving enthusiasts. Known among fellow collectors as “the Grandfather of Modern-Day Wet Shaving,” Lynn Abrams has owned as many as 2,000 straightedge razors as well as other shaving paraphernalia, including mugs and brushes.

In 2000, Abrams founded the first wet-shaving forum—Straight Razor Place—as a way for collectors and shaving enthusiasts to connect and discuss their passion. “The forum grew from about 10 members to more than 3,000 in a matter of months,” Abrams recalls. “Younger people began to join and talk about how they remembered watching their grandfathers shave. I think it’s important to preserve these tools and this particular art of shaving.”

Currently, Abrams owns a 2,500-square-foot wet-shaving emporium near Cleveland called Straight Razor Designs/Imperial Shaving. He has noticed that the desire for a great shave mixed with the collectible nature of shaving accessories have spurred some men to even convert their bathrooms to accommodate antique shaving tools—with curious-looking leather strops prominently displayed on the wall for all to see.

“I spent 30 years as an insurance salesman, and the pace of that can best be described as fanatical,” Abrams divulges. “I needed something to slow me down. So I began to get up a half hour early and enjoy a hot towel, whip up some hot suds in my mug and shave with my straight razor. It became something I looked forward to every day. 

Scuttle mugs feature a separate section for hard soap, with the larger portion holding hot water; they are often mistaken for “mustache cups” of the time.
“Men complain about sensitive skin, ingrown hairs and razor bumps. Once they use a straight razor, those problems go away because it’s such a close shave,” he continues. The best way to start collecting antique shaving relics is to “do your homework,” he advises. Abrams recommends exploring the web and cites eBay as a good place to see what is valuable or rare before purchasing or visiting your local antiques shop.

Various online forums also are good sources for research, and often list information on regional and international gatherings. He notes that American-made, turn-of-the-century razors are one of his favorite categories of straight razors, simply because the technology of the time and the factories that made them are incomparable and long gone. Some of his preferred manufacturers include Kinfolks, Cattaraugus, Klaas and King. “The addictive quality of razors and shaving collectibles is definitely there,” he continues. “I just consider myself lucky to see a resurrection of this art. That’s the true beauty of it.”

This pewter shaving mug is inscribed with “C.Y.C. Commodore’s Lawley.”
Consider this
• Damaged or dull blades may be salvaged by a skilled honing professional. Razor blades have a fine, tooth-like edging that can only be seen under a microscope. A dull blade has irregular teeth, which a high-grit honing stone and strop can restore and refine.

• Vintage shaving brushes commonly feature badger’s or boar’s hair, although badger hair is considered the best bristle material, as it absorbs the most moisture. Varieties of badger hair in brushes range in quality from “Pure Badger”—a coarser bristle from the underbelly of the animal, typically dark in color, to “Silvertip Badger”—the most expensive and rare, identified by its flared, fluffy bristles and naturally white tips.

•  When collecting ceramic shaving mugs, check for chips and cracks, which can diminish their value. Many mugs include a manufacturer’s mark, indicating where the original blank mug was crafted. Mugs signed by notable American artists also have a greater value.

Where To Buy
Antique Gatherings, Antiques on Central, eBay, etsy.com, straightrazordesigns.com.
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