Although the clean-shaven look has been in style periodically since at least the 12th Egyptian Dynasty, or around 2000 B.C., the earliest recognizable razors date to the 17th century in Europe. These iron tools were shaped like small hatchets, but were eventually modified to include a pivot, allowing the sharpened blade to remain protected within the handle or “scales.”

By the 19th century, razors had evolved from a wedge-shaped blade to a more modern straight razor design, with blades made from silver steel, an alloy produced by incorporating carbon into the metal. Handles were often made from tortoise shell, horn, wood, bone, and, later, cellulite, while higher-end pieces included finer materials like ivory, mother of pearl, and sterling silver, as well as artwork carved into their handles or blades.

The earliest razor manufacturers, like Wade & Butcher, were primarily based in Sheffield, England, but other successful firms appeared near Solingen, Germany, like Krupp, Böker, and Dovo. In America, brands to look for include Robeson Cutting Co., the Case Company, and the Garland Cutlery Company.

Along with the rise of the straight razor came the barbershop, whose employees were carefully trained in the art of maintaining a sharp blade by honing or stropping them on a leather or canvas strip. To soften a beard for shaving, towels were heated in a steam cabinet and wrapped around a man’s chin; to minimize nicks and razor burn, foaming soap suds were mixed in a shaving mug using a brush made from badger or hog whiskers.

Generally, razors designed for the barbershop were unadorned, while those for home use sometimes included elaborately carved blades or handles. During the 19th century, seven-day sets became popular, allowing a home-shaver to sharpen them all at once and have a fresh blade for each day of the week.

King C. Gillette forever changed the art of shaving when he introduced the so-called safety razor in 1904, which allowed those unskilled in the use of straight blades to shave themselves. Gillette’s safety razor used two small, disposable, pressed-steel blades fitted into a metal closure, which made them much simpler to use. The blades were also cheap to replace when dull, which meant no more endless stropping.

During World War I, Gillette designed its Khaki Set in an olive-green pouch to be given out to troops through an exclusive arrangement with the U.S. military. The marketing tactic worked, and many soldiers came back from Europe with a new favorite razor. Gillette’s popularity was also strengthened by its partnerships with sports stars, beginning with a 1910 campaign featuring baseball legends like Honus Wagner...

In an attempt to stay relevant, straight-razor producers adapted the design for easier home use by incorporating disposable blades, like the Shavette by Dovo or like Durham-Duplex’s model that fit beneath a toothed shaving guard.

Still, the demand for barbers declined as the popularity of safety razors grew; new makers like Schick, Ever-Ready, and the Gem Cutlery Company soon joined the field. Other innovations followed, like Schick’s model that stored unused blades in its handle and would automatically load a new blade into the shaving head, but the most popular razor designs have remained nearly unaltered since the early 20th century.

In 1928, the first electric razor with oscillating blades was patented by Schick, and other companies like Remington and Philips’ Norelco soon improved on the device. Despite these innovations, the classic straight razor still provides the closest shave, and though far fewer are produced, they remain popular among barbers today.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]

Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

JosOld Wade & Butcher Straight Razor 7/8"1934 Gillette Aristocrat Comb Safety Razor - Heavy Gold Plate €Vintage Gillette Safety Razor Aristocrat Tto Y1 In Box Excellent ConditionVintage Belgian Coticule Razor Hone Original Box Layers Belgian Blue WhetstoneVintage Gillette Gold Aristocrat Deluxe De Safety Razor Bulldog Handle 1934-1936The King! Straight Razor Dorko Solingen 6/8,Stunning! 6/8 Straight Razor Sistrum By P. Drees Solingen Nos!Vintage 1956 B1 Gillette Gold Diplomat Tto Double Edge Safety Razor W/caseWade & Butcher For Barbers Use Straight Razor HonedVintage F4 Gillette Adjustable Toggle Gold Toned Safety Razor W/1-9 Dial UsaVintage Gillette Safety Razor New Standard In Box Super Clean Awesome Shave Ready J A Henckels "401" Solingen Straight Razor BoxedDorko Resco Straight Razor 7/8Look! 5/8 Straight Razor J.a.henckels Zwillingwerk Solingen,friodur Blade!Gillette Safety Razor Aristocrat 1947 In Box Super Clean Minty Tto Superb Vintage Cased Gillette Saftey Razor Traveler Set With Brush EtcBeautiful 6/8 Wade & Butcher Special Sheffield Straight Razor - Shave Ready!Lot Of (2) Vintage Razors- (1) 1959 E-4 Gillette Fat Boy & (1) Unknown1949 Gillette Rhodium Plated Executive Razor & Set (rare) 1937 Gillette Gold Sheraton Open Comb Safety Razor With Case & Blue BladesVintage Early 1800's W Creaves & Sons Shlaf Works Straight Razor(700+) Injector Razor Blade Lot - Pal - Personna - SchickTerrific! 13/16 Straight Razor J.a.henckels Zwillingwerk Solingen Nos!1930's Barbasol 2 Piece Open Comb Safety Razor Very CleanDorko Straight Razor-shave Ready #66 6/8" W/ Original Box Solingen,germanyOld Wade & Butcher Straight Razor Wide 1" Chopper Blade1940`s Gold Aristocrat Gillette Safety Razor In Case Super Clean Estate FindVintage 1971 Gillette Super Adjustable Black Beauty Safety Razor Blades Case R1Old James Barlow & Sons Straight Razor 7/8"Vintage Dubl Duck "lifetime" Straight Razor Grim ReaperOutstanding! 6/8 Straight Razor Focus By F.schlemper Solingen Nos,sealed!!Vintage Gillette Double Edge Safety Razor Adjustable & Case Fat Boy E1 Vintage Gillette Fat Boy ??? Adjustable Safety Razor Super Blue Blades In Box Gillette Fat Boy Safety Razor Gold Plate Date Code D3 1958 Adjustable 1-9Old Wade & Butcher Straight Razor 3/4"Vintage 30's Gillette "the New" Copper 3 Piece De Safety Razor W/ Nos BladeGillette Gem Antique Razors With Case And Blades Lot Of 2 1910Vintage Razor & Shaving Parts Lot - Gillette Schick Gem Enders PersonnaVintage Gillette Super Adjustable Black Beauty Safety Razor New Blades O4 1969Old Enamel Sign Clemak Safety Razor Blade Vintage Barber Shop Advert VintageVintage 1968 Gillette Aristocrat Safety RazorWade And Butcher Straight Razor Pair(10) Vintage Safety Razor Lot W/ (6) Gillette Double Edged Open Comb Brass 1920s Puma Rare Shave Ready Antique 5/8 Cut Throat Straight Razor Boxed OriginalVintage 1930's Gillette The New Open Comb De Safety Razor Clean!Vintage Joseph Rodgers And Sons Straight RazorJ.a. Henckels Straight Razor. Shave Ready. Custom Scales. Very Nice.(5) Gillette Safety Razor Lot #2 - Vintage EstateJames Barlow & Sons 1828-1856 Straight Razor 100% Shave Ready! Old Sheffield Awesome Shave Ready J.a. Henckels Straight Razor "twin Works" Fancy ScalesAn 11/16” Sheffield Straight Razor By Joseph Elliot.Case Xx Usa 1965-1969 62009r Saw Cut Red Bone Barlow Knife Rear Master RazorVintage 5/8" Dubl Duck Goldedge Round Nose Razor Shave Ready Mi Solingen GermanyLot Of 4 Vintage Gillette Safety Razor, Double Edge Safety, 3 PieceVintage Gillette Safety Razor LotVintage Shaving Lot, Rolls Royce Safety Razor Straight RazorA 13/16” Straight Razor By Thomas Turner & Co.Wade & Butcher 13/16 Straight Razor - Shave Ready - Eagle On BladeDovo Solingen Razor Straight #24 Fritz Bracht Vintage Nos Germany