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    

Vintage Gillette Aristocrat Safety Razor No 66 - 1953Vintage Wade & Butcher Sheffield England Straight Razor - MintGillette Safety Razor Aristocrat British Set #66 With Box 1953 Rhodium PlatedVintage Gillette Aristocrat Gold Tone Safety Razor W/ CaseVintage Aristocrat One Piece Gillette Gents Razor With Blades C.1970 ExcellentVintage 1938 Gillette Open Comb Senator Safety Razor With Nos Blue Blades Vintage Straight Razor Joseph Rodgers & Sons Star And Cross Sheffield 2cmVintage Aristocrat One Piece Gillette Gents Razor With Blades C.1970Vintage Razor Hone Sharpening Stone. 6-15/16" X 1-5/8" X 3/4" Two Sided, NaturalVintage Gillette Aristocrat Gold Tone Safety Razor Gold Box W/ RazorsRare French Adjustable Lecoq Razor With A Gillette BladeVintage Straight Razor ( Dubl Duck Goldedge ) Nice 13/16" Vintage British Gillette #77 Two Piece Safety Razor With Case Made In EnglandVintage 1920' Gillette "richwood" Silver Razor W/antique Wood Case No BladesAntique J.a.henckels Solingen Straight Razor No.50 1/2 With Box Original+beauty! Grey/green Natural Rock Sharpening/honing Oilstone/wetstone - Chisels/razorsNos Unused Vintage Blue Lady Gillette Starburst Razor In Package And BoxAntique Crown & Sword~ern~straight Razor ~ Extra Superb~ Engraved Blade A 13/16" Straight Razor Manufactured By J Pearce 1Grand Shave King - Self Lubricating Razor - 1940sVintage Gillette 1961 "fat Boy" Adjustable 1-9 Tto Safety Razor G3, Mint!!Vintage 1960 Gillette Adjustable "195" Fat Boy Safety Razor With New BladesWade & Butcher Etched Straight Razor Mint & EtchedVintage 1960 Date Code F1 Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable Tto Safety RazorThree Washita Arkansas Sharpening Stones Razor HonesVintage Gillette 1960 "fat Boy" Executive 1-9 Tto Safety Razor F1, Near Mint!!1957 Vintage Gillette Red Tip Super Speed Safety Razor Nos Blades Instructions1909 Gillette/abc Scroll Design Pocket Edition Safety Razor Set Ex. Vintage CondVintage 1930s Straight Razor Dovo Solingen Rare Ww2 Wh WlWade & Butcher Sheffield England Fantastic Carved Mother Of Pearl Straight RazorA 13/16" Straight Razor Marked Blue Diamond By Grah & Plümacher 36Vintage Gillette Razor Travel PackHoffritz Silvertone Razor With Blade Cases And Box VintageA 6/8" Straight Razor Manufactured By Puma 33Boxed Razor Honing Stone, Whetstone, ThuringianAntique Cut Throat / Straight Razor - Rogers Of SheffieldVtg Lot (3) Gillette Safety Tto Razor K-1 K-3 P-2 Clean 100% Functional N. MintVery Nice Gillette Aristocrat Safety Razor Tto W/ Vintage CaseNice Elegant Gillette Ladies Vintage Safety Razors Starburst Old Double EdgeBelgian Coticule Straight Razor Hone1965 Gillette Slim 1-9 Adjustable Tto Safety Razor K 2 Set "very Clean" Vintage Gillette Super Adjustable Black Beauty Safety Razor Double Edge Code 02Schick Injector Single Blade Shaving System Razor And Blades NewVintage Merkur Slant Bar Safety Razor With Valencia Leather Case Large Vintage Belgian Coticule Hone, Belgischer Brocken, Razor HoneVintage Gillette Double Edge Safety Razors - Lot Of Three - L1 - L2 - L3Shave Ready Vintage Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable De Razor With Case F2, 1960Gillette Shaver Vintage Fat Boy E 3 Adjustable 1-9 Safety RazorSafety Razor Lot 29 Razors Nice U.s.a. Gillette Gem Ever-ready Evans Clean7" Natural Belgian Coticule Straight Razor HoneOld All Original 15/16" Wade & Butcher For Barbers Use Razor Shave Ready Ex CondOld Gillette England Pat 430030 Safety RazorOriginal Bartmann Vintage Straight Razor Solingen Germany 11/16" Shave Ready!Japanese Razor Nightngale Shave ReadyA 6/8" Straight Razor Manufactured By Ern 34Very Nice Case For A Gillette Adjustable Fat Boy Razor. (case Only )Vintage 1975 Gillette Super Adjustable Black Beauty Safety Razor With New BladesFilarmonica Doble Temple 14 Straight RazorVintage Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable 1-9 E 1 Safety Razor Double Edge Used OldDubl Duck Goldedge Straight Razor