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    

Super Vintage Set 7 Day Cut Throat Straight Razors Amboyna & Brass Box Delhez NrShave Ready -  large 1” Wedge - Wade And Butcher Straight RazorAn 8/8” Straight Razor By Wade & Butcher "for Barbers Use"Vintage Gold Gillette Aristocrat De Luxe Safety Razor Nos Blades Original CaseGillette Aristocrat Jr. Safety Razor - British Made!Wade & Butcher "the Celebrated" 8/8 For Barber's Use Straight Razor Sheffield1960 Gillette Adjustable Fat Boy Razor With Original Case & InstructionsVintage Straight Razor ( Wade & Butcher ) Nice 6/8" A Cased Pair Of 6/8” Straight Razor By A ShemeldShave Ready - J.a Henckels Twinworks #415 - Vintage Straight RazorMajestic! Nos 6/8 Straight Razor Paul Drees Solingen,cut Throat,直剃须刀,coupe ChouVictorian Silver Steel 6/8" Cut Throat Straight Razor Joseph Elliot SheffieldSpecial! 13/16 Straight Razor Kam Carl KNos - Dorko Straight Razor! Shave Ready! - Pearlduck Dubl Duck Wonderedge Straight RazorVintage Straight Razor 15cent Cut & Shave Barber Wood Occupational Folk Art Sign5 Vintage Shaving Safety Razors Gillette Black Beauty Fat Boy Adjustable SlimAntique Joseph Rogers & Sons~cutlers To Their Majesties~sheffield Straight RazorHis Majesty! Nos 6/8 Straight Razor J.breidohr Les Croix Solingen,Rare! 1921 Gillette Richwood Safety Razor Set W/ Original Box And Nos BladeFor Gillette Collectors! Beautiful Z1 1954 "president" Safety Razor SetVintage British Gillette Aristocrat Razor Patents 400621/430030 Made In EnglandTerrific! Nos 6/8 Straight Razor Dk Prior Solingen,Vintage Gold Gillette New Open Tooth Comb Safety Razor Nos Blades Red &black SetGillette 1953 Psycho Lock Fat Handle Made Brazil Double Edge Tech Razor PwVintage Gillette Safety Razor Lot-fat Boy-slim-super Speed, Etc. (5 Razor Lot)Vintage Geo Wostenholm Ixl Straight Razor, Bakelite Washington Works SheffieldVintage Gillette Aristocrat Gold Plated Razor With Original Case & Blue BladesDubl Duck Wonderedge Straight Razor Made By Bresduck Inc.Shapton Diamond Glass Stone # 8000 Straight Razor HoneVintage 1938 Gillette Senator Open Comb Tto Safety Razor Vintage Gillette President De Safety Razor A-1 Nos Blades/original Case! Vintage Straight Razor ( Silberstahl Solingen W/box ) Nice 6/8" Antique French Straight Razor - €1908 Gillette Abc Pocket Safety Razor Sp W/ Flower Design + Original Case C24105Vintage Gillette Gold Adjustable Toggle Safety Razor GorgeousDubl Duck Stainless!! Ultra Rare Solingen Straight Razor - Shave Ready! Wow!High Class! Nos 5/8 Straight Razor Gebr.weyersberg Solingen,Shave Ready! - Pearlduck Duble Duck Goldedge Straight RazorMint Unused Hoffritz Safety Razor Helical HeadAntique Gem Cutlery Junior Bar Razor 1900-1901 New York Usa Vintage Gillette Abc 1910 Pocket Edition Open Comb Safety Razor Case Old SetVintage '62 Gillette Adjustable Slim Safety Razor Nos Blades Case H4 Feather DeVintage 1965 Gillette Slim D/e Adjustable 'k1' Safety Razor & 5 Nos Blades! Nos Gotta 120 Straight Razor, Rasiermesser, Rasoio Mano Libera, 13/16Shave Ready! - Wade & Butcher Square Tip Straight RazorFor Collectors! Vintage 6/8 Wade & Butcher "h.w. Carter" Etched Straight RazorUnique Rare Dorko Luxe Mint Unused Etched Solingen Straight Razor - Shave Ready!Vintage Straight Razor Hone Geniune Belgian In The Original BoxMagnificent! Nos +13/16 Straight Razor F.schlemper Solingen,Vintage 1959 Gillette Fat Boy Safety Razor Tto Code E 1Vintage Straight Razor ( Wm Greaves ) Nice 6/8"" 1920 Gillette Bulldog Safety Razor Set (razor In Excellent Plus Condition)Gillette 1950's British Heavy Duty Hd Rocket Safety RazorVintage Wade And Butcher Sheffield Celebrated Hollow Ground Straight Razor Antique Straight Razor - High Quality Shaver!Lot Of 60 Assorted Straight Razors Various BrandsExclusive! Dorko Superb Straight Razor 7/8" Rasiermesser, Navalha Solingen Nos!Vintage Gillette Safety Razors - Lot Of Two- G2 Fat Boy & H 3 Vintage 1930's Gillette De Goodwill Safety Razor