If you were looking to purchase a gift for your father a hundred years ago, a foolproof item would be a shaving mug. Every male would have their own personalized mug for use when visiting their barber.
In the late 1800’s barbershops became increasingly popular due to the style of short hair in favor during the World War I era. This short hair was an attempt to limit the amount of germs carried from one soldier to another. In an attempt to provide customers with a clean experience, barbers began to use personal shaving mugs. There was a fungus that erupted in the late 1870s, known as the “barber’s itch” which opened the door for individual shaving mugs in order to stop the spread of the fungus.1 Unfortunately, the mugs did not prevent the fungus because the fungus itself spread from the razor and not the mug.
Shaving mugs gained popularity in the late 1800s, which is known as the “Early Stage.” From the 1890s until about 1915 was known as the “Golden Age.” During this time, shaving mug use was at its peak, and mugs were being widely distributed around the United States.2
The shaving mugs themselves were often imported from Europe, but were decorated in the United States. The porcelain found in the United States was seen as inferior to materials imported from Europe. Barbers would suggest to clients that they order mugs to avoid the “barber’s itch”, and the barber would then place the order to the decorator. Barbers typically had a catalog with different designs their clients could browse through, and then the client could pick their personal design. The more detailed designs cost more than the simple ones. One famous decorator was Curt Grimm. He had a long career of decorating and claimed the busiest season for mugs was from September through December right before Christmas.3
The process of shaving mugs began with a photograph, chosen by the client. The photograph was then placed on the mugs themselves and was burned right onto the mug. Then a gold frame was placed around the photo in order to enrich the appearance of the mug.4
There are five different categories of shaving mugs: gold name, floral, decorative, fraternal, and occupational. The gold name mugs the simplest and cheapest mug to make. These were often used in hotels and contained a number that corresponded with a hotel guest. Occupational mugs showed the owner working in his chosen trade; it was the action itself, not just a symbol of their trade. The fraternal mug symbolized a family name and would be passed down from generation to generation.
For immigrants in the United States, shaving mugs were more than just a way to practice safe hygiene. Often fathers would leave their mugs to their sons, and along with the shaving mug, the sons inherited the responsibility of the family as well. Barbershops also provided immigrants with a social environment in their native culture and helped them adjust to the American way of life. The decline of shaving mugs began with the invention of the safety razor by King Camp Gillette. After the invention of the disposable razor, there was a decline in the number of clients who visited the barber for a shave.
1 Estep, Keith E. The Shaving Mug & Barber Bottle Book, with Value Guide. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub., 1995 (pg 6)
2 Estep, Keith E. The Shaving Mug & Barber Bottle Book, with Value Guide. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub., 1995 (pg 16)
3 Ware, W. Porter. Price List of Occupational and Society Emblems Shaving Mugs. Chicago: Lightner Pub., 1949 (pg 70)
4 Ware, W. Porter. Price List of Occupational and Society Emblems Shaving Mugs. Chicago: Lightner Pub., 1949 (pg 72)
By Carolyn Fitzgerald,
Chudnow Museum Associate