I have exhausted the cistern concerning Morris County history for now. While it is filling up again I want to spend the next few weeks talking about various items in my shop. Since I get plenty of questions I figure it might be of interest to give some history on the barber trade.
The one thing I enjoy collecting is personalized shaving mugs. These mugs sport the name of the owner with a decorative floral motif, or simple gold band around the rim and base. They are all hand painted, the designs are endless, and therefore fall into the category of folk art. They are a wonderful way to document the social and merchant history of a region and the nationality of the person whose name it bears. The mug may show what occupation or fraternal organization he was in.
To the best of my research and experience, personalized shaving mugs were first produced in the 1860s. The earliest example that I have seen is Sam Houston’s shaving mug on display in the museum at the Alamo in San Antonio Texas. Before finding this mug I was not aware that personalized mugs were produced before 1870. Houston died in 1863, therefore if the mug is authentic, and it appears to be so, this helps to date the antiquity of personalized mugs.
Before the days of the personalized shaving mug a ball of soap and hand basin were used. This practice continued till the late 1600s in England, and then for another 300 years or so in less refined societies. The barber would apply lather to the face with his hand, which we do today except by aid of a hot lather dispenser. By the 1840s American barbers were buying imported shaving compounds. This was nothing more than fancy scented soap packaged in a round porcelain container. The said container was decorated with an advertisement from the company. By the 1870s these containers were pretty much done away with and soap was simply wrapped in paper.
Until personal mugs became popular in the 1870s, the same mug, brush and soap were used in common on everyone. Our Department of Health frowns on this very much today. There is no better way to spread contagion than for a bunch of grungy men to share toiletries. One benefit of a personal mug is the economy of it. The soap remains in the bottom of the mug for next time; hence it will last much longer. Also, the barber finds an additional source of income selling mugs to his clients. The customer finds it advantageous to his business, having a mug with his name prominently displaying his occupation. And of course the mugs are a status symbol for the barber shop, the more mugs on the wall, the more customers.
Concerning the mugs in my own collection, which the reader may come look at any time, they are dated circa 1870 up through the turn of the century. I have a variety of personalized which are decorated with floral, gold leaf, color wrap, and a few fraternal mugs. The fraternal mugs are the more valued of my collection, but are not more desired than the occupational mugs. I do not have any occupational mugs as I can’t seem to talk myself into spending over a hundred dollars for one. Among the fraternal mugs that I have are The Improved Order of Red Men, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, and Modern Woodmen of America. Each of these orders has a very interesting history. All are founded on the principles of brotherhood and service. They all had insurance to protect the members against disaster, and they all have a mission in charity work. In fact, the Odd Fellows started in England in the 17th century as a group of ‘brothers and sisters’ who combined their hard earned wages to help each other out in tough times. They were considered ‘odd fellows’ who devoted their time and money to such a selfless cause.
An exceptional mug that sold at auction March 5 of 2010 was one representing a veterinary with a horse in a stable. It sold for $8,500. A boxer’s mug dating around 1900 sold for $7,605 in 2009. To top it all, a mug with horse drawn ambulance in pristine condition sold for $22,425 in 2008.
When the Kansas Barber Board was established in 1913, sanitary conditions in the shop were noticeably improved. This was the beginning of the end for shaving mugs. It was considered unsanitary to use a mug and brush in the shop, and by the 1920s mugs were going out of style. It wasn’t too much longer and they were eradicated all together. Since then, the hot lather dispenser has found a permanent place in the shaving parlor. There were many other changes that would make antique connoisseurs weep in later years, but I’ll tell you more of that next week.
Many changes have occurred in the method of shaving, and we have finally made it full circle. Men are taking up the mug and brush once again. I have been shaving with mug and brush since I found it necessary to shave. I find no better, smoother shave than with a bar of glycerin soap and a Mach III razor. Try it and see what you think!
Addenda: One thing I forgot to mention were numbered sets of shaving mugs. They could be purchased by the dozen, numbering 1-12 or 1-24 etc. They were typically used in hotel barber shops and by barbers. I have one example, No. 11. These are more valuable when collected in sets rather than individually.