The straight razor world not only carries a colorful ritual, but it also has a colorful history. Straight Razor Place Mentor and historian Martin103 gives us a glimpse into the story of the straight razor.
OBIE: What is the history of the western style straight razor? When did they come into use, as we know them?
MARTIN: There is plenty of evidence found on paintings and illustrations going back to the 15th Century. These illustrations clearly show a razor that is foldable into a handle or scales. These were used by barber-surgeons, who gave you a shave, pulled teeth, and even did bloodletting. It wasn’t until the early seventeen hundreds that the barber-surgeon occupation became two separate entities. So now the barber was only cutting hair, shaving and talking about the weather. I believe the cutlers started making razors for barbers strictly for shaving rather than being multi-function tools as before.
OBIE: What instruments did men use to shave with before the advent of the western style straight razor?
MARTIN: Early humans are claimed to have used seashells as tweezers to remove facial hair. Cave paintings show shaving with flakes of obsidian and clamshells. Romans used razor-shaped instruments in bronze. Later, they turned to a mixture of copper and iron, because it was more efficient. Being unshaved in Roman time was showing neglect.
OBIE: Great razors were produced in England, Germany, France, Spain and other countries. When did razor production develop in these countries?
MARTIN: The history of these centers of cutlery goes back six or seven hundred years. But as far as razor production on a larger scale, it is the Eighteenth Century.
OBIE: Sheffield, Solingen, Thiers, among others, developed into major razor production centers. I’m sure other lesser-known places also produced some type of a razor. Looking back for us, what sets these centers apart?
MARTIN: The years of experience in razor making — the artisan learning and then teaching, from generation to generation. They all took great pride in their work, even when the working conditions were not so favorable. Once these centers started exporting their cutlery goods, they grew substantially.
OBIE: What distinguished the great razor-making center, and how were they distinguished from one another?
MARTIN: These artisans strove for quality — workmanship, attention to detail, presentation. Although they were highly competitive, they were respectful of each other. What’s more, they were always trying to outdo the other razor maker, especially in the great world expositions.
OBIE: Name some of the great razors produced in these individual centers?
MARTIN: Sheffield — Wade & Butcher, George Wostenholm, Joseph Elliot, Joseph Rodgers, and many more. Solingen — Boker, Henckels, Dovo, Revisor, Engelswerk, Puma and others. Thiers — Thiers Issard, Pierre Hospital — Le Grelot — Dumas Aine, Fontenille, Pradat-Brun, and countless more.
OBIE: The Sheffield razors were mostly heavy grinds and big blades. Why such concentration in Sheffield on big blades?
MARTIN: You will find that most big blades were made with the words “For Barbers” on the razor. My take on this is that the blade would hold lots of lather, and also take many honing sessions. The idea was that if you start with a big blade, as you hone the razor, you lose some length, and, therefore, starting with a big blade, you’re able to have many more honing sessions. These big blades, as you shave, don’t load up with lather like a four-eight razor would, so you would have less cleaning of the blade while shaving the customer. I also think that these “for barber use” razors were only available for barbers at this time to entice men to get a shave from the new kind of razor with the big blades.
OBIE: In time, razor makers began to hollow their blades. What led to this and away from the heavy Sheffield-type grinds?
MARTIN: It is really unknown who started hollowing the razor, or where it started. There are some very early examples, however, that point to the ease of honing and a different shaving feel that people found attractive. Not so, though, with the Sheffield razor makers — they disliked the idea at first. The Germans really took it to the next level and patented a machine to do this task. Then even some Sheffield makers were sending blanks to Germany to get this new grinding style.
OBIE: What’s America’s role in all this?
MARTIN: Let’s not forget George Korn, of Little Valley, New York. Korn patented the American Double Hollow Razors, in 1901, if I remember correctly. The razor is hollowed in the usual way, but also concave at the very edge. It’s sort of like a belly grind but more pronounced.
OBIE: When we think of France, the name Thiers-Issard pops up. Yet, France produced a big collection of razors with lesser names, although not necessarily lesser in quality. You’ve mentioned some of these names already. St. Etienne, for instance, produced quality razors. Through the years, I have owned several French razors that were not Thiers-Issard. I thought they were fine shavers. I just wish I had kept them.
MARTIN: Hard to find a bad vintage French razor. Thiers, Chatellerault and Saint-Etienne come to mind. French point and round point are very common in razors from these regions. Even the razors produced in small communities on the smaller scale turn out to be fantastic shavers. The scales are often made in bone, ivory and turtle shell.
OBIE: Then there were Wapienca, of Poland, Filarmonica of Spain. The Eskilstuna area of Sweden produced some marvelous razors — AE Berg, CW Dahlgren, CV Heljestrand, JA Hellberg and Klas Tornblom. What made these distinct razors so special?
MARTIN: Eskilstuna of Sweden produced some fantastic shavers. It was another center of cutlery going back to the early sixteen hundreds. Let’s not forget that at a certain point, most Sheffield razors were produced from Swedish ore.
OBIE: Then we have the great American razors, using the great American steel. Genco, Topflight, Kinfolk, Shumate, and many other, were really quality razors. Topflight is still one of my favorites. I had a couple five-eights that would out-shave the Pumas, the Filarmonicas, and many other great names. Talk about American razors.
MARTIN: American razors, the combination of Sheffielders and Germans coming together to create some no frills but wonderful shavers. Do not under-estimate American razors — the early New England cutlery companies, followed by the incredible New York razors of Little Valley and other small centers. Americans learned from the best cutlers from all over the world.
OBIE: How do the new production razors compare to the great ones of the past?
MARTIN: They don’t compare whatsoever — no soul.
OBIE: Finally, do you have advice for newbies looking for the great razors of the past? Also, do you have a warning for them?
MARTIN: Do your research. For vintage razors, it’s all about condition. Do not get caught up in the hype about a certain manufacturer or size. There are plenty of incredible razors, and many by not so common makers, Enjoy.