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    

The Celebrated Hollow Ground Razor Straight Wade & Butcher Sheffield For BarbersF4 (1960 4th Qtr) Gillette Toggle Safety Razor---fat Boy PrototypeWwii~western~boulder, Colo.~shark Knife~razor Sharp Combat Fighting Knife Weapon1930's Gold Plated Gillette Aristocrat Safety Razor Brass Case & Blade Box1870's~wade & Butcher~for Barbers Use~shave Ready~antique 7/8 Straight Razor~Vintage Wade & Butcher The Celebrated Hollow Ground Straight Razor W/ Case J Ax Vintage 8dot 1982 Case Xx Stag Razor Barlow Pocket Knife 52009 Raz Mint Excellent !! Dorko Try Me Sir Solingen Straight Razor, Rasoir Coupe Chou 7/8"!! Vintage Gillette "d1" Gold Tone 1-9 Adjustable Toggle Safety Razor Red Dot ****Vtg Gillette Adjustable Safety Razor Fat Boy E4 With 15 Blades Super Blue CleanVintage 1960 Gillette Adjustable "195" Fat Boy Safety Razor With New BladesCelluloid Box Gillette Safety Razor Aristocrat W/celluloid Blade Holder 19201959 - E1 - Red Dot Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable Tto Safety Razor - Rare - NiceVintage British Gillette Aristocrat RazorVintage Gillette 1959 "fat Boy" Adjustable 1-9 Tto Safety Razor E2, Nice!Vintage Ww1 Khaki Gillette Safety Razor Set Property Us Army Military Issue DeVintage Shaving Lot - Straight Safety Razors, Hones Mug, Brushes 50+pc As IsGillette Gold Super Adjustable Black Beauty Safety Razor With Case & Blades1930’s Vtg Brass Open Comb Gillette 3 Piece De Safety Razor W/ Case & Blade HoldVintage Leresche Safety Razor French Open Tooth Comb Orig Case & Nos BladesVintage 1961 Gillette G3 Fat Boy Tto Adjustable De Safety Razor Set Super Nice!Vintage 1960 Gillette 195 "fat Boy" 1-9 Adjustable De Safety Razor W/ New BladeRare Antique Wade & Butcher Sheffield Barbers Use 1" Wide Blade Straight Razor.1910s~w.r. Case & Sons~the Case Razor~registered No. 1915~antique Straight Razor2 Vintage Gillette Fatboy Razor Cases - Cases OnlyVtg Yellow Belgium Coticule Ardennes Honing Stone & Box Straight Razors Knife Gc1930's~western~craftsman~pat. 1967479~razor Sharp Hunting Knife W/orig. Sheath~1958 (d4) Gillette Executive Adjustable Safety Razor W/durakote Dial/blades Vintage Gillette Safety Razor With Box (usa)Gillette Safety Razor Made In England 363892 With CaseVintage W. Greaves & Sons Barber Use? Straight RazorVintage Old Antique H Boker Germany Straight RazorVintage Straight Razor Shave Ready Thiers Issard Horn Straight Razor Vintage 1960 Gillette Adjustable 195 Fatboy F 4 Safety Razor Case InstructionsDovo Straight Razor "en Vogue" 5/8" Micarta Stainless SteelOrig Ww2 Canadian Army Safety Razor Mirror & Blades C Broad ArrowGillette Milford Saftey Razor In Orginal Case Vintage 1940s Nice UsaVintage J.a. Henckels Rapide Safety Razor 7 Day Set. Jo-1036Vintage Gillette Adjustable Safety Razors-lot Of 5Vintage '62 Gillette Adjustable Slim Safety Razor Orig Spoiler Blades Case H24 Vintage Safety Razor Lot Plus Razor Blades Sharpening Stone & SoapVintage Gillette Adjustable Safety RazorVintage Genco Geneva Cutlery Easy Aces Straight Razor BladeVintage 1956 Gillette Blue Tip Super Speed De Tto Safety Razor Set B4Vintage 1973 Gillette Super Adjustable Black Beauty Safety Razor W/ PersonnaVintage Wade And Butcher Straight Razor Antique 1 1/8" Blade Straight Razor By E.l. & Co. Manufactured For The Us. Rare!Vintage 1965-69  case Xx Pocket Knife  6205r  "one-armed Man" Barlow Razor  boneAwesome Near Mint M. Jung No. 80 Straight Razor In Original Box New York/germanyB. Worth Vintage Straight Razor, Shave Ready, Cased, FreepostOld Antique Vintage W Greaves & Sons Straight Razor 3/4" Early Wood HandleLot Of 4 Straight Razors Wade & Butcher, John BarberVintage Gillette 1940's Aristocrat Tto Razor With Original BoxVintage '65 Gillette Adjustable Slim Safety Razor New Feather Astra Blades K3Vintage Lot Of 5ps Straight Razor Shaving #06Vintage Gillette Copper And Brass 3 Piece Open Comb Double Edge Safety Razor Wade & Butcher Straight Razor Etched "you Lather Well, I'll Shave Well" A 13/16" Straight Razor Manufactured By Ern "crown & Sword" 261961 (g-3) Gillette 195 "fat Boy" (1-9) Adjustable Safety Razor (very Nice)