If you want to cultivate the habits of a dapper dandy from days of yore, it’ll require more than just a straight razor: Long before Barbasol, real men relied on a badger-hair brush and a ceramic shaving mug to get them through their facial regimen. Used in tandem with round bars of soap that fit neatly into the bottoms of these mugs, gentlemen would vigorously scrub the bars with their brushes to generate a mug full of thick lather for smooth, straight-razor shaving.
So-called “wet shaving,” as this technique is known, is an art unto itself, and when beards went out of style following the Civil War, many men preferred to put their sensitive cheeks in the hands of professional barbers. As patronage increased, tonsorialists needed a way to ensure cleanliness for their customers, so many set aside individualized mugs and brushes for their regular clientele.
Companies like the Koken Barber Supply Company of St. Louis capitalized on the market for unique shaving mugs, which boomed throughout the Victorian Era. Ceramic mugs with gilded patterns became popular gifts, and were frequently personalized with a man’s name and a custom photograph printed right onto the pottery. Some of the most collectible shaving mugs featured their owner’s profession, favorite sport, or fraternal organization.
Shaving mugs were typically made by large potteries, such as Sèvres, Limoges, or Homer Laughlin, and embellished by smaller companies like Smith Brothers in Boston or B. Stuebner’s Sons in Brooklyn. The most elaborate versions included a small glass mirror, a drawer for storing soap, or a spout for pouring off excess water (such mugs are often referred to as scuttles). Brushes were usually made of wood, ivory, metal, Catalin, or Bakelite handles topped with badger bristles.
By the late 19th century, manufacturers were also specializing in thick-foaming soaps, drawn by the success of Vroom and Fowler’s Walnut Oil Military Shaving Soap. But as more men adopted safety razors and disposable blades after their 1903 debut, shaving mugs and brushes began to go out of fashion. Burma-Shave introduced pre-lathered shaving cream in 1925, and the addition of aerosol cans following World War II made shaving mugs as quaint as butter churns. However, traditionalists can still find classic shaving implements made by a few longstanding manufacturers, like A. Simpson & Co., which has sold handmade shaving brushes since 1919, as well as newer toiletry companies like Gillette and Old Spice.