by Dr. Lori Verderame
The history of personal grooming and hygiene along with barber shop antiques offers collectors a popular porcelain collectible: the occupational shaving mug.
In the early years of the 20th Century, before the introduction of the safety razor used by men to shave at home, it was required that barber shops practiced cleanliness when it came to their patrons’ shave. Patrons who wanted a shave by a professional barber in a barber shop using a straight razor–like those tortoise shell-handled or ivory-handled straight blades of the early 1900s–were introduced to his own personal shaving mug. These mugs were stored on a shelf with other mugs at the barber shop.
These porcelain mugs featured a client’s occupation via an image on the mug. The mugs looked similar to traditional ceramic mugs and were mass produced in Germany like Hummel figurines, in England like Staffordshire china, and in France like Limoges objects. Upon arriving in the United States, these blank white porcelain mugs that had been manufactured abroad were decorated with a variety of images.
Like beer steins, the mugs were hygienic because a mug was only used by a single customer. There was no sharing of shaving mugs nor could the barber use the same cake of soap from the mug of one customer for another. The mugs held soap which was lathered up using a stiff bristled brush and then applied onto the face of the customer prior to shaving.
When collecting barber-ana (a.k.a., barber shop collectibles), occupational shaving mugs are highly desirable and very valuable in the antiques marketplace. Some occupational shaving mugs are worth several thousands of dollars each. For instance, these white porcelain mugs were decorated with gold leaf showing the name of the client in cursive script. Some were decorated with an image that related to the owner’s profession. Many mugs would have a hand-painted image relating to a client’s occupation like a hearse for an undertaker, eyeglasses for an eye doctor, a locomotive for a train conductor, or a horse for an equestrian or a horse racing enthusiast.
A barber shop could have an impressive and diverse collection of occupational shaving mugs on its shelves depending on the clients who patronize the shop and the prestige of the shop’s clientele.
What to Look For
There are many clues to value when considering occupational shaving mugs and understanding pottery marks. The country of origin and/or the maker’s mark will be located on the underside of the mug and this will tell you where the mug was manufactured and originally produced.
Understanding pottery marks will help collectors reveal important information about an antique shaving mug’s history. These mugs were imported into the United States free of decoration and called “blanks”. They were decorated to the specifications of the client or barber once purchased.
When assessing value of occupational shaving mugs from the early 1900s, experts consider the rarity of the image depicting an occupation, a unique profession that is featured on the mug, a well-executed and artistic image of an occupation, the mug owner’s background, celebrity or social status (e.g., did the mug belong to a famous person?), and the condition of the mug as well as any evidence of chips, losses, or cracks.
Get an online appraisal of your occupational shaving mug from Dr. Lori.