Collectors Work Up A Lather For Barbershop Memorabilia

By Syl Turner

The barber industry has an interesting history that can be traced back to the time when barbers did more than just cut hair. In earlier times, barbers performed surgery and tooth extractions. In fact, the barber pole had its origin with the practice of bloodletting. There was a time, which extended into the late 1800s, and in some rural parts of this country into the early 20th century, when it was believed that removing blood from an ill person would rid them of the diseased blood and affect a cure. The barber surgeon would have the individual grasp a pole so their veins would stand out. The blood was collected in a basin, and linen cloths were used to bandage the subject and for general cleanup. The linens used for cleanup were often reused and would be hung on the pole and allowed to dry outside of the shop. The wind sometimes twirled the red and white bandages around the pole and this colored swirl pattern was eventually adopted and painted onto poles to identify the barber shop.

These poles became permanent outdoor advertising fixtures. In the United States, the color blue was added to the pole as a patriotic gesture. It was not until the early 20th century that barber poles came to have the classic rotating cylinder. In the early models, a hand-wound clock-like mechanism turned the striped cylinder. By the mid-1920s, most barber poles had electric motors.

Antique barber poles can be found in a variety of designs, shapes and sizes. A 1930’s Koken barber shop wall-mount light pole in good working condition will sell for up to $1,500, but a fully-restored, porcelain enamel revolving 1920s lighted street pole will bring $6000 or more. The barber pole is just one of a multitude of different barber shop collectibles. Collectors are particularly drawn to what might be called the “golden era” of the barbershop. The period between 1880 and 1940 represents the “good old days” when the barbershop was a bastion for males. It served as a meeting place for men only, and while seated upon a “throne-like” chair, they could for just a few coins get a haircut, a shave and catch up on the latest town gossip.

The earliest chairs were made of wood and had four legs. These wooden chairs often had elaborate carvings and were upholstered with plush and fanciful fabrics. In 1874, Ernest Koken of St. Louis started taking orders from local barbers for custom-decorated shaving mugs, and the Koken Barber Supply Co. was born. Soon after, Koken began selling chairs to barbers, and in 1881, the company patented the first Koken chair that reclined for shaving. A chair that revolved and reclined was patented in 1885.

In 1892, Koken developed the first foot-pedal hydraulic chair that later became the industry standard. At the turn of the century, porcelain enameled cast-iron chairs came into vogue. Today, Koken chairs are highly prized among barber chair enthusiasts. An early cast iron chair in good working condition can be found for under $500, while a completely reconditioned chair could fetch $5,000 or more.

Barbershops during this period had elaborate back bars with barber bottles containing hair tonic, hair oil, bay rum, witch hazel, rosewater and in many shops, colorful bottles containing the barber’s unique concoction. Prior to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, bottles were not labeled but had distinctive colors so the barber could identify the contents by the color of the bottle. The contents of some bottles were specific to a special customer, and the customer’s name was highlighted on the bottle. Today, these bottles are prized by the barber bottle collector.

The personal identification of clientele was not limited to bottles of hair tonic. Perhaps the most desirable of all barbershop collectibles today is the occupational shaving mug. Occupational mugs were not commonly found in American barbershops until about 1880. These hard paste, white porcelain mugs were originally from Staffordshire England, France, and Germany but hand decorated in this country. These were personal mugs with an individual’s name and a hand-painted image, representing the patron’s occupation.

Patrons thought it was more hygienic to have their own personal shaving mug and in so doing, thought they would eliminate a shaving rash. Any rash the customer experienced, however, came not from the mug that was used, but from the unsanitary razor used by the barber.

Nevertheless, such mugs served as a status symbol; not only for the customer, but the amount of mugs the barber had on display in his mug rack was a visual representation of the size of his customer base.

Common household mugs sell for as little as $10-$30, but occupational mugs can range from $400 to as much as $5,000, depending upon condition and the rarity of the occupation.

Of course, we can’t talk about shaving without mentioning the straight razor and the strop used for honing the blade. Straight razors required considerable skill to hone and strop and even more skill and care during the actual shave. This was a major part of the curriculum of early barber colleges. Straight razors remained the barbers’ razor of choice, even after the introduction of Gillette’s Safety Razor in 1904.

Prices for antique straight razors depend upon the material from which the handle is made, such as bakelite, bone, mother of pearl, tortoise shell, etc. A decoration on the blade is another factor in valuing an antique straight razor. The blade could be decorated by engraving and/or gold leafing or on less expensive models, by acid engraving. The maker is another factor with the German manufactures being the most desirable. Prices for antique straight razors range from $10 to $100 or more.

Other barbershop collectibles include sterilizers, disinfectant jars, shaving brushes, shaving soaps, waste jars, barber signs, clothes brushes, and just about anything related to barbering that has disappeared, having been replaced by modern unisex salons.

Syl Turner is the owner and operator of the Broad Street Antique Mall in Chamblee, Ga. Many of the photographed items in this article, along with hundreds of additional barbershop collectibles, can be found in the Broad Street Antique Mall, or accessed from the web site:  


Ca. 1927 Emil J. Paidar fully restored porcelain street barber pole, $6,000.

Berninghaus “Hercules” Barber Chair, 1901, used in the movie, The Time Machine; $15,000-$20,000. (Photo courtesy, the J. Kimble Collection.)

Ca.1900 hair tonic bottles, $75-$100 each.

Two Blue Persian design barber bottles with manicure bowl, ca. 1900, $650.

Williams Shaving Powder,
ca. 1930, $50.



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