By Lily Kaar
This week’s object is a straight razor, also sometimes called a cut-throat razor. I was very excited to find a razor in the collection, as I had never seen one outside of Rube Goldberg drawings before.
This particular razor was made by “Theo A. Koch,” a manufacturer out of Chicago in the 1910s. The handle is ivory or bone, held together with two pins, and the blade is a full hollow-ground razor with a square point, which was popular in the United States. Engraved on the tang of the blade is the word “Marcella,” likely the manufacturer’s name for the particular model of razor. The blade retains a highly polished finish; mirror-finishes were expensive, and often applied only to one side.
While people were shaving with straight-edged blades for centuries, the direct development of the modern straight razor started in the 17th century; the earliest known folding razor was manufactured in Sheffield in 1680. At the time, most razors were wedge ground—the blade had a continuous taper from the dull edge to the cutting edge, which sacrifices flexibility and sharpness in return for strength. By 1740, Sheffield’s Benjamin Huntsman was producing folding straight razors of superior quality. The hollow grind—a grind that left the blade concave when viewed from the end and provided a sharper cutting edge—had been introduced to razors, and Huntsman was producing higher-quality crucible steel. The inventor of the crucible steel process, Huntsman actually spent several years exporting his entire output to France, as local cutlers and razor manufacturers refused to use it. It wasn’t until the 1770s and later that the steel was incorporated into English manufacturing, due to competition from imported French cutlery.
Overall, the design of straight razors would change very little. The handles, or ‘scales’, gained a curve in the mid-1800s, which was also when the extended tang of the razor, or ‘monkey tail’, began to feature more prominently. “Sheffield silver steel,” known for its high-gloss finish, began to replace Huntsman-style cast steel in the 1830s. By the latter half of the 19th century, manufacturers had begun to produce a greater variety of razors, varying the blade width, degree of edge grind, and point style. Razors with a square point were generally popular in America, razors with a rounded point were generally popular in Europe, and different manufacturers might create variations on slightly rounded corners in order to provide a non-square point capable of finesse. Throughout the century, manufacturers decorated razors with more embellishment than simple maker’s marks, including brand slogans, acid etching, and even gold leaf.
Unfortunately, the introduction of the safety razor in 1880 and its combination with the disposable razor blade by King C. Gillette in 1903 made a sizable dent in the market for straight razors, and by the mid-20th century, straight razors had mostly been obscured by the disposable razor market. Straight razors are still produced today by specialty companies, although it may cost over $100 for razor and strop together. A modern alternative is the “shavette”, a straight razor that takes specialty disposable blades and as such does not require skillful honing and stropping to maintain the edge.
Interestingly, there was a boom in interest in straight razors following the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall, due to its shaving scene, with modern manufacturers noting anywhere from 50% to 400% sales increases. While I was unable to find if this boom continues today, the trend for nostalgia certainly influences the continued sales of straight razors.
E.B. “James Bond and male grooming: Getting stroppy.” Economist.com. The Economist magazine. 08 Nov 2012. Web. 12 Aug 2015.
“Razor : shaving implement.” Britannica.com. Encyclopaedia Britannica. N.d. Web. 12 Aug 2015.
“Razor Emporium Presents Razor Archive: Gillette Collector’s Reference.” Razor Archive. Razor Emporium, LLC. 2009. Web. 12 Aug 2015.
“Straight Razor History.” The Invisible Edge. The Invisible Edge Ltd. N.d. Web. 12 Aug 2015.