Oftentimes, the most interesting artifacts from history are connected to the most mundane and overlooked activities, such as the antique razor and its connection to barbering and its role in constructing male fashion. First achieving social fame with the quintessential straight razor during the 19th century, people have been using sharp tools to trim and shape the hair on their bodies for centuries. Yet, these historic tools can actually serve for a close 21st century shave, one the likes of which you've never experienced before.
Historic Development of Razors
Archaeological research proves that humans have been shaping their facial hair for centuries, making early razors out of natural materials like horn, flint, stone, bone, and tortoiseshell. Of course, the oscillating popularity of beards and closely shaved faces meant that razors were constantly evolving. Yet, with Jean-Jacques Perrot's straight razor, which came equipped with an 'L' shaped wooden guard, came a new style of easily stored straight razor. By the late 19th century, straight razors were being decorated along their spines, thinned out with hollow ground blades, and designed with elongated tangs to create beautiful, and deadly, works of art. However, King Camp Gillette's 1901 patented safety razor changed the razor industry forever with its disposable set of sharpened blades the likes of which are still being used today.
Identifying Antique Razors
One of the difficult aspects of identifying an antique razor is the fact that many vintage straight razors closely resemble antique razors; however, the materials used to make the handles can be a great tell of a razor's age. For example, things like bakelite and plastics were popular during the mid-century and would most likely be found on both a vintage straight razor and a safety razor. Looking at a straight razor's spine (the butcher-knife shaped blade) and/or tang (the piece connecting the handle to the blade) for any maker's marks or advertising can help you get an idea of the razor's age. However, dating these items is best left to a professional because tiny nuances in the shape of the handle or curve of the blade can indicate an entirely different era of one razor from another. If you'd like to do more research on a specific antique razor that you have, you can check out these detailed resources for more information.
Notable Antique Razor Brands
The golden era of the antique razor is the mid-19th century to the early 20thth century, and the number of manufacturers from around the world that crafted their own versions of this grooming tool is quite prolific. Regionally, America, Germany, and England were well-known for the quality of their razors, and many modern razor collectors are attached to the different geographic styles that developed out of each location. Here are some of the most notable manufacturers that produced razors during the 19th and early 20th centuries:
- Edwin Jagger
- Kampfe Brothers
- Frederick Reynolds
- Wade & Butcher
- Robeson Cutting Co.
Antique Razor Values
There's a dedicated group of gentleman collectors who enjoy finding items related to the history of men's dress and the various accoutrements that gentlemen used to make themselves socially presentable, but casual collectors can compete with these seasoned professionals since most antique razors only cost between $100-$300. Take this 1920s Wardonia England safety razor that's listed for about $65, and this 19th century Frederick Reynold straight razor that's listed for nearly $100, for example. Restored razors, on the other hand, will cost a bit extra because they've been cleaned and sharpened to be prepped for immediate use; for instance, this Wade & Butcher "Celebrated Washington Razor" has been restored and is listed on Classic Shaving's website for almost $600.
Antique Razor Restoration
Now, some of you probably have an antique razor passed down to you from your grandfather or great-grandfather tucked away in a box of trinkets somewhere in your house, but you've always considered it to be too rusty to actually do anything with. Before you run to get that tetanus shot and try handling the aged beauty yourself, take a look at the various restoration services available specifically for antique razors. The Razor Emporium is a fabulous option as they specialize in the art of the shave and offer three different levels of restoration: tune-up, revamp, straight razor. Each of their services is under $50, making them a particularly affordable restoration business given the high prices other antique restoration experts can charge.
Antique Razors Are the Cutting Edge
Forever memorialized as both a tool and a weapon in the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd: A Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the antique razor has established itself as an icon of gentlemen's dress in popular culture. Modern day hipsters began to bring back the tradition of shaving with straight razors in the 2010s, meaning that there's still a place for this historic practice in the modern world. However, you don't have to grow facial hair in order to enjoy the sleek designs of historic razors, and you can always put one of them on display in your home as a beautiful and threatening new decoration.