NEW YORK – A barbershop is more than just a place to get a shave and haircut. In many communities, the barbershop has long been the center of town where men would gather to catch up on local news, debate politics and hang out with friends. It has sometimes been described as a clubhouse for the working class.
From the late 19th century into the 20th century, barbershops would offer mugs for their customers, which they could then choose from a catalog to be decorated and inscribed with their name in calligraphy-style writing in gilt so it would be theirs alone. Some mugs also bore signatures of the artist who painted them. The mugs took pride of place in a barbershop, lining the shelves in the shop and reserved for that particular customer, and spoke to the shop’s status.
Michael Ippoliti, curator and director of the National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame in Canal Westchester, Ohio, said, “You could tell the success of the barber by the number of mugs he had.”
A wide variety of shaving mugs, which held the shaving soap, were made. Fraternal mugs were decorated for fraternal organizations such as the Lions, Elks or the Masons. Advertising mugs were usually created as promotional items by the makers of shaving soap brands. Among the most collectible types of shaving mugs were occupational mugs, which would have a picture printed on the mug reflecting the barbershop customer’s profession and gilt-decorated with the customer’s name.
“For many men during the shaving mug era, an occupational mug would cost them as much as a full day’s wages, while a simple gold name mug would cost as much as one-fifth of the total,” according to the Old Shaving Mugs website.
Many of these mugs were made in Germany, France or England and shipped blank to America to be customized. Among the well-known U.S. companies decorating them were the Koken Co. of St. Louis, J.R. Voldan and Harold Brothers, both in Cleveland; C. Knecht in Chicago, Ranson & Randolph Co. in Toledo, Ohio, C.A. Smith in Philadelphia and Philip Eisenmann of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The mugs were highly decorative yet their purpose was to promote sanitary conditions and health. “It was so dangerous to shave at home [particularly when straight razors were in use before safety razors became common] so a lot of people went two to three times a week to the barbershop just to get a shave,” Ippoliti said. “They didn’t have the antibiotics that we do today so if you nicked yourself or used a dirty blade, you could really mess up your face. When you went to the barber for the first time, he would issue you a mug with a number on it and then you would get a catalog to order your own mug if you wanted to. Your mug and your brush stayed there so when you came in there the next time, he would grab your mug and your brush. Just like you don’t share your toothbrush with people, you didn’t share shaving mugs either for the same reasons.”
There were hundreds of varieties of occupational shaving mugs for just about every profession one can think of, including doctors, mailmen, lawyers, bookkeepers, dentists, railroad workers, policemen and clerics. Less common occupation mugs seen online include those for a wheelwright, iceman, produce wagon vendor, race car driver, yacht builder and telegraph operator. The more unusual the occupation, the higher the demand today, in general. Some of the earliest occupations shown on mugs are the four B’s: barbers, butchers, blacksmiths and bartenders. Many were made around the turn of the century, circa 1880-1920. By the 1930s however, they were falling out of fashion, but collectors began taking notice and buying them.
These mugs originally sold between 25 cents and a few dollars. Ippoliti noted that many collectors will collect the mugs with a name or signature on them and do genealogy research on that person. Collectors highly treasure these mugs today and prices for the finest examples are usually several thousand dollars each, depending on the occupation shown and the level of detail pictured and artistic mastery. A stockbroker mug sold at New Jersey-based Bertoia Auctions in May 2013 brought the highest price on LiveAuctioneers’ price database thus far, at $13,000.
Once a staple of the barbershop and a necessary safety item to prevent “razor rash,” the occupational shaving mugs today pay homage to a bygone era. They are prized collectibles that don’t take up much room to display and can spark a lively conversation as decorative pieces.