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    

331175 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor Tin Sign Blades Gillette Nt EnamelVintage 1958 Gillette Adjustable Safety Razor Toggle D1331142 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor Box Packet Tin Blade Case Gillette~*~estate Find~*~ Old Antique Straight Razor #3 Wade & Butcher Age???331001 Old Barber Shop Sign Razor Blade Display Figural Advert Gillette T Enamel1960 Gold Gillette Fatboy Red Dot Toggle 'f4' Adjustable 1-9 Safety Razor Antique Straight Razor Blade Wade & Butcher "celebrated" Sheffield Barber W/caseVintage Ornate Gillette Safety Razor331016 Old Barber Shop Sign Razor Blade Vintage Glass Advert Gillette Nto Enamel Very Desirable Carved Antique Bone Shaving Straight Razor W/quilting Pique Pins331017 Old Barber Shop Sign Razor Blade Vintage Advert Gillette Enamel Original*** Beautiful Antique Sterling Shaving Straight Razor**w/ Flowers Design ***331171 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor Box Packet Tin Case Gillette331014 Old Barber Shop Sign Razor Blade Vintage Tin Advert Gillette Nto Enamel17/16" Wade & Butcher Fbu - 'the Celebrated Hollow Ground Razor For Barbers Use'Antique Straight Razor Blade Only Wade & Butcher Sheffield Masonic Masons Barber331157 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor Box Packet Tin Case Gillette** Superb Wade & Butcher Carved Antique Shaving Straight Razor W/fine Pinwork **Genuine Spyderco Paramilitary 2 Ii C81gp2 Cpms30v Razor G10 Plain Edge Nr331122 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor - Blade Box Tin Safety KampfeVintage Gillette Adjustable Razor Toggle/origional Case/travel Pouch/bladesWade & Butcher Antique Straight Razor W/ 1" Wide Blade - Excellent ConditionAntique Straight Razor Blade Yankee Cutlery Co W/case "magnetized" Germany EagleVintage F. Fenney Tally Ho 1 Inch Wide Sheffield Masonic Straight RazorA 7/8" Straight Razor Manufactured By Mappin Bros (38) Lancet Edge Razor Vintage 19 Gillette Safety Razor Large Lot Red Tip Adjustable's Fat Boy U.s ArmyVintage Safety Razor: French-made Cased Valencia Slant331258 Old Barber Shop Sign Razor Blade Display Card Advert Gillette Nto Enamel331147 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor - Tin Safety Reel Watch331261 Old Barber Shop Sign Razor Blade Display Card Advert Gillette Nto EnamelBlack Beauty !! Dorko Solingen Straight Razor, Rasoir Coupe Chou 7/8" Look !!!Vintage Antique Gillette Aristocrat Safety Razor & Original Gold Tone Case 1930sUnusual Early 1820's Antique Wooden Handle Shaving Straight Razor W/ Wedge BladeA 13/16" Straight Razor Manufactured By Gotta (24)1961 ((g-2) Gillette 195 "fat Boy" (1-9) Adj. Safety Razor (vg) ConditionVintage 1959 E-4 Gillette 195 Fat Boy 1-9 Adjustable De Safety Razor W/ Blade331315 Old Shaving Safety Razor Vintage Tin Kit Box - Ever Ready White Art DecoVintage Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable Safety Razor 1-9Vintage Gillette New Standard Safety Razor With Case Made In The UsaFrederick Reynolds - Restored Straight Razor - Shave ReadyAntique Collectible Complete Griffon Safety Razor W/pink Tin Gillette Aristocrat Set Made In England Great Looking English Aristocrat Razor Tortoise & Sterling Silver Antique Straight Razor W/ 7/8" Wide Blade - ExcellentVintage W/box ' Filarmonica 13 Duble Temple ' Straight Razor Shaving SpainVintage Large Chunky Green Escher & Co Straight Razor Water Hone Stone331074 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor - BoxA.j Jordan Kampfe's Brothers Safety Razor In Original Tin C1900sVintage Gillette Aristocrat Silver Tone Safety Razor ~ No Date Code331103 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor - Blade Box Tin Safety Ever ReadyDubl Duck Straight Razor "wonderedge" 5/8Gillette Adjustable Slim Safety Razor Set Nos 1965331147 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor Box Packet Tin Case Ever ReadyVintage ' Bismarck 2 Solingen ' Straight Razor Shaving GermanyVintage Kampfe Bros Dandy Star Safety Razor Kit With Case Made In The Usa1900's~h. Boker & Co.~extra Hollow Ground~daily Straight Razor Set W/ Orig. Box~Vintagenos Minty Gillette 'psycho' Locking Safety Razor With Key !!331102 Old Barber Shop Vintage Shaving Razor - Blade Box Tin Safety Wade ButcherWade & Butcher Straight RazorVintage Gillette 195 Adjustable Razor & Pack Of Spoiler Blades In CaseRare 1949 Gillette #16 British Aristocrat Gold Razor&case Tto Pat.430.030 As-is