Learn about shaving mugs and how they are traditionally used.
Shaving mugs are large, wide-mouthed mugs often resembling coffee cups. Starting in the late 19th century, they were used to mix a lather that was applied to the face before shaving. Shaving mugs became relatively obsolete after the development of prepackaged shaving cream, but are still enjoyed by both antique collectors and shaving traditionalists today.
Antique shaving mugs were made from a variety of materials. Glass or porcelain was the least expensive and therefore the most common, but tinsmiths also created shaving mugs out of pewter, silver and brass. They were often hand painted or appliquéd with extensive designs, much like china teacups from the era.
Shapes varied from those resembling plain coffee cups to intricately-designed, 3-D pieces of art. Some of the oldest shaving mugs were partitioned inside, with one area for soap and a separate water reservoir for dipping the brush. These were called Scuttle Mugs due to their resemblance to coal scuttles. Today's shaving mugs are typically made from sturdy, inexpensive ceramics in basic, functional designs.
Shaving mugs were used in tandem with a brush and glycerin-based soap. In order to build lather, men placed a small bar of glycerin soap in the bottom of the mug and inserted a water-saturated shaving brush made with boar or badger bristles. (Synthetic fibers are often used today.)
The gentleman then quickly stirred over the soap, forming a lightweight, frothy mixture. As the stirring continued, the mixture would whip up and fill the shaving mug with a rich lather, somewhat thinner than modern shaving cream. The man could then spread the lather on his face, using it as a lubricant for a close, comfortable shave.
From the late 1800s through the 1920s, before the Great Depression devastated the economy, gentlemen of means frequently visited the local barber shop for a pampering of hot towels, a newspaper, a cigar and a shave. According to the National Shaving Mug Collector's Association (NSMCA), it was typical for regular barbershop patrons to purchase a personal shaving mug and bar of soap from his barber. (It was thought that razor rash came from men sharing these products. Unsterilized razors were likely the real culprits.)
American Heritage Magazine notes that barbershops frequently ordered European-made, blank porcelain shaving mugs from barber supply companies in the United States. The barber would place an order for the mug on the customer's behalf, and a professional craftsman would add the customer's name (and sometimes a depiction of his occupation, fraternal society or favorite sport) to the blank prior to delivery. After arrival, the mug was then kept at the shop; usually hanging on a wall display. The customers enjoyed the convenience, and the barber profited from the sales while developing a steady customer base.
Recognizing the sales potential of such a commonly used product, early retailers took advantage of the shaving mug's popularity by turning it into a promotional tool. The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles lists soap manufacturers Golden Knight Shaving Soap and Shulton Old Spice among those that discounted or gave away mugs. Decorating the mugs with their logos, the companies banked on brand recognition, leading to loyal customers.
Souvenir and commemorative mugs followed along the same vein, further boosting popularity and sales. These types of mugs depicted vacation sites or public events, such as the grand opening of a town hall or church. In some cases, actual photography adorned the pieces. Following the trend, fraternal organizations like the Elks, Odd Fellows and Masons also advertised in this fashion.
Today, antique shaving mugs are popular collectibles ranging in price from $10 to $5,000. Their wide range of styles and craftsmanship make them sought-after pieces by collectors of porcelain, metal works, shaving memorabilia, fraternal organizations and industrial era art. Shaving mugs are frequently collected by style, the most popular being the occupational mug depicting the owner's name and trade. Pricing for rare specimens can be in the thousands of dollars.
Other collectible genres include:
Modern day shaving mugs can be purchased from some barber shops, grooming supply outlets and specialty gift shops for men. Vintage shaving mugs can be found in antique stores, resale shops, online bidding sites and, if the collector is fortunate, the occasional yard sale.