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    

As Seen On Tv Micro Touch Razor One Classic Safety With Extra Blades MicrotouchVintage Escher Blue Green Thuringian Water Razor Hone & Slurry Stone Labeled BoxShave Ready Straight Razor, Dovo Superb 5/8 Bergischer LoweVintage Red Imp 700 C Barbershop Razor Strop ~ Barbers Choice! ~ Rare!1880's~wade & Butcher~henckels~7 Day Antique Straight Razor Kit~daily Shave SetVintage Hoffritz Slant Head Safety De Razor Case Nos Blades Merkur FeatherVintage 3 Gillette Psycho Locking Safety Razors With Master Key And Shipping BoxVintage Wade & Butcher's For Barbers Use Straight RazorDovo 'bismarck' Straight Razor 6/8 "Vintage '60 Gillette Fat Boy D/e Adjustable Safety Razor F4 With Case & Blades! Vintage Straight Razor - Puma -  shave Ready!Vtg ~ G1 Fat Boy Gillette Adjustable Safty Razor ~ 3 Other LotVintage '60 Gillette Fat Boy Adjustable Safety Razor Blue Feather Blades Case F3Vintage 1961 Gillette 195 "fat Boy" 1-9 Adjustable De Safety Razor W/ Nos BladeShave Ready Straight Razor, Vintage Thiers Issard Le Grelot 6/8Vintage 1960's Gillette Aristocrat Gold Tone Safety Adjustable RazorVintage Gillette 1969 Super Adjustable Safety Razor O3, Near Mint And Clean!Old Gillette Safety Razor In BoxOld Antique Vintage Straight Razor C 1800Vintage Straight Razor - Dovo -  shave Ready!Lot Of 6 Estate Found Safety Razors 5 Gillette F 3, M 3, Z 1, 1 Merkur Germany Antique Straight Razor - George Wostenholm & Son’s - Shave Ready!Taylor Of Old Bond Street Shaving Set Pure Badger Bristle Brush And Razor Vintage Antique King Gillette Safety Razor Case Full Set Pocket Edition UniqueVintage German Ern 786 Crown & Sword 6/8" Cut Throat Straight Razor SolingenVintage 1950's Merkur Slant Safety Razor, Leather Case And Blade Holder Vintage Gillette Adjustable Toggle Safety Double Edge Safety RazorStraight Razor Solingen Nos 7/8 Bambola Sealed High Quality Old Rudolf SchimdtVintage Safety Razor - Gillette Aristocrat Antique 7/8 Wade & Butcher Sheffield Straight Razor Blade Only Rare Vintage Mulcuto Slant Razor With Leather Case And Blade BankUnusual Antique / Vintage French Lecoultre Straight Razor. Box, 2 Blades & ToolVintage Wade Butcher Sheffield Straight Razor 7/8" Wide BladeAntique Straight Razor No. 7/ See Listing And Pics For Details !Vintage Wade & Butcher 7/8" Blade Straight Razor With Box Nice - No ReserveVintage Gillette Fat Boy Safety RazorVintage 1959 Gillette Adjustable "195" Fat Boy Safety Razor With New BladesMuhle R89 Jet Razor Dlc CoatingGillette Platinum Plus Super Adjustable Razor With 9 SettingsVintage**rare**early Wostenholm 6/8" Straight Razor With Horn ScalesVintage Antique Packwood "old English" Sheffield Straight Razor WedgeVintage 1955 Gillette "heavy" Super-speed Double Edge Safety Razor W/new BladeThiers Issard Straight Razor Hand Forged Straight Razor From 1095 Steel Craig Barr 4Vintage 1918 Old Type Gillette Civilian Wwi Khaki Set De Safety Razor & CaseOld Vintage Gilette Razor In Box Made In Usa Gold PlatedMagnifique! Coupe Chou Focus By Friedrich Schlemper Solingen,straight RazorBarber Carborundum New Old Stock #201 Sharpening Stone Razor Hone W/ BoxVintage N2 1968 Gillette Adjustable Slim Tto De Safety Razor & Case Nr!2 Vintage Straight Razors - Giesen & Forsthoff & Wade & ButcherAntique Gillette Big Fellow Pat Jan 13 1920 Silver Plate Razor & Case & BladesRed Imp Straight RazorJ. G. Escher Sohn Germany Water Razor Hone Original Box Bottom Sticker Intact Very Special! Puma No. 89 Straight Razor 6/8 !!, Nos Rasoir Solingen!! Wade & Butcher "celebrated Barber's Use" Straight Razor / V.large/thick BladeExcellent!! Peaso Straight Razor 5/8, Honed Point Nos Rasoir Rasoio Solingen !! Antique Gillette Tuckaway Safety RazorVintage Merkur Solingen Germany Gold Color Safety Razor AdjustableA 13/16” Lightly Ground Sheffield Service Straight Razor By George Butler & CoA Vintage Straight Or Cut Throat Razor Kropp Sheffield Unused