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 Gold Aristocrat Open Comb Razor With Nos Gillette Blue BladesVery Rare Monkey Tail Wade And Butcher Celebrated Sheffield Straight RazorLie Nielsen No. 8 Jointer Plane Excellent Condition Razor Sharp. No Reserve!Wade Butcher 8/8 Str8 RazorGeorge Wostenholm & Sons Sheffield Celebrated I-xl Shave Ready Straight RazorVintage Gillette Safety Razor In Bakelite CaseVintage Gillette Toggle D1 Red Dot Safety Razor With Case 1958A 6/8" Hollow Ground Straight Razor By Joseph Rodgers (no 18)1953 (y-1) Gillette President Safety Razor/case/10 Ct Blue Blade Dispenser- ExceRazor Hone Natural Whetstone Nakayama Kiita With Naguras SetVintage Jose Monserrat Pou ~filarmonica~ Shave Ready Straight RazorVintage Gillette Richwood Three-piece Safety Razor SetVintage Safety Razor Double Edge Razor Gillette England 694093 In Box 1960's1958 Gillette Gold Executive Adjustable Fat Boy Safety Razor With Feather BladesEarly Big Wade & Butcher 'for Barber Use' Stub Tail Cut Throat Straight RazorAntique 'papillon' (butterfly) Twin-blade Straight Razor — Truly AncientAntique Wade & Butcher Sheffield Straight Razor For Barbers Use 8/8 Blade W BoxVintage Straight Razor ( 18 Puma ) W/ Box, Nice 7/8",Razor Hone Natural Whetstone Nakayama Asagi Suita 5+Gillette Fat Boy Executive Razor D3Belgian Coticules And Razor HonesOrnately Etched 13/16 Wostenholm I-x-l Heavy Straight Razor With Bone Scales! Vintage J.r. Torrey Straight RazorVintage Coles Slant De Safety Razor - Good Condition - Shave Ready!Vintage Belgian Coticule Razor Hone Yellow & Blue 5" X 1" 9/16" Vintage Straight Razor ( Imperial )( Stamped Bicycle ) Nice 6/8", Vintage Shave Ready Straight Razor/cut Throat, Ern Crown&sword Solingen GermanyFine Edwardian Cased Seven Day Cut Throat Straight Razor Set B&s CowvanBeautiful 13/16+ 3 Pin Dubl Duck Heavy Special #1straight Razor! Shave Ready!Vintage Sta-sharp Straight Razor With Case (3a)Vintage 1959 Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable Fatboy Safety Razor E-2 W/case Nice OneVintage Pomco Diagonal Double Edge Safety Razor With Original Case ExcellentVintage Gillette Toggle Razor 1957-8 Vintage Shave Ready Straight Razor/cut Throat, Art George Butler SheffieldJapanese Straight Razor Diamond Hayashi Shave ReadyOrnamental Spine - Vintage Fish Logo - German Straight Razor - Shave ReadyLot Of 4 Vintage 1940's Gillette Fat Handle Tech De Safety RazorsDovo 'renaissance' Straight Razor 6/8 "Vintage Straight Razor ( Frederick Reynolds ) W/box, Nice 5/8",Antique 1909 Gillette Silver Pocket Safety RazorA 7/8" Hollow Ground Sheffield Straight Razor By Ern "gong" (no 11) Wade And Butcher Straight RazorTry Me Sir !! Top Dorko Solingen Straight Razor, Rasoir Coupe Chou 7/8" Look !!Vintage ' 翁 Okina 東京 ' Straight Razor Shaving Japan TokyoVintage Gillette Gold Milord Safety Razor With Leather Case & Cream Blue BladesEarly Gillette Pocket Edition Safety Razor, King Gillette With CaseVtg 1930s Gillette Reissue Gold Plated Open Comb 3 Piece De Safety Razor Set Vtg. Razor Honing Stone Gray Green Escher 7 1/8" X 2 5/16" X 1 5/16" No LabelVintage Straight Razor ( Dubl Duck)( Special No 1 ) W/ Box, Nice 11/16",Case Xx 1989 52005 Ss Stag Handle Razor Jack Pocket Knife #b158W. Greaves & Sons Large Straight RazorRare Collection Lot Of 27 Vintage Antique Straight Razors Wade & Butcher + MoreVintage 6/8 Straight 'napoleon' Razor From 1870s With Great Scales13/16 Fancy Worked Spine Straight Razor - Great Shave Ready EdgeAntique Wm. Greaves & Sons - Sheaf Works - Straight Razor - 166 Years OldOld Vintage Antique W Greaves Straight Razor C 1830Vintage Straight Razor ( George Wostenholm ) Nice 11/16",4 X Cased Hollow Ground Straight Razors By KroppVintage ' King Prlican 32 東京 ' Straight Razor Shaving Japan Tokyo #bAntique/vintage Rolls Razor Razor Heads In Original Box Made In England Good Con