The history of straight razors
Straight razors, which reached their design zenith in the early 1900’s, have changed (to the untutored eye) very little since the late 1700’s. Yet in reality they have changed a good deal – including the very steel they are made from. Handles (or, more properly, scales) have undergone changes in design and composition too. The differences are subtle yet significant and, for anyone wishing to better understand their chosen method of eliminating the stubble, can be appreciated. Below we give a brief, but by no means exhaustive, history of the straight razor.
The straight razor may be a simple tool but that doesn’t mean to say it’s crude. Far from it. The modern (1950-ish onward) straight razor (from here called a ‘razor’) is a distillation of design that has been evolving since about 1600. That’s a long time. The reason the razor is a simple tool is one of refinement – modern razors may not have the collectability value of the ones made 100 years ago but we suspect they’re now made of better steel.
Razors reached their design high point in about 1930 or so, in our opinion (that will be no doubt hotly contested). About this time the blades were made of the best steel around, the profiling of the blades reached a peak and – let’s face it – they couldn’t get any sharper. We have no doubt that this will have absolutely no effect on the desires of collectors (including us here at The Invisible Edge) so what follows is as objective as we can make it. We don’t have examples of all the early razors to show you (yet) but here’s a tour through time –
1500’S – 1600’S
Razors looked like small hatchets and didn’t have maker’s names or any form of branding. It was as likely that these were made by the local blacksmith as anyone. What shaving was like with these razors is anyone’s guess (perhaps that’s why most men grew beards!) but they were used widely and were the forerunner of the straight razor as we know it.
Both blade and scales were wedge-shaped, the blade being wider at the point than at the pivot. The profile of the blade was a ‘wedge’ – no hollow grinding – and its edge straight. Blades had no tang as such and very often no ‘monkey tail’ (the curved ‘trigger’ piece at the end of the scales). If this was present it was short and stubby. Typical materials used to make scales were horn, wood and bone, though tortoiseshell and ivory were also used. The surface of the scales was almost always flat, not curved, though they were sometimes bevelled. The pins at either end of the scales were sometimes of brass but generally made of iron. Razors made between 1740 – 1830 were sometimes marked with the words ‘warranted’ or ‘cast steel’ to show that this type of metal, invented in 1740 by Robert Huntsmann of Sheffield, had been used. By the standards of today the razors from this era look a bit crude – but they were the cutting edge (pun intended!) of their day.
Cast steel razor by Clayton, C. 1780-1790. Notice the complete lack of a shoulder and no tang to speak of. Scales are horn. This used to belong to a Buddhist Monk – honestly. (TIE collection, NFS)
The razor below came in for honing and is believed to date from the end of the 18th Century.
1800 – 1820
This period showed small but subtle changes. A ‘shoulder’ began to develop on the blade – forerunner to the stabilising piece – and the overall size became a bit smaller. Scales started to show a slight curve, moving away from the earlier totally straight handles. Decorative handles of pressed horn began to appear.
1820 – 1830
The biggest change in this decade was the discovery, by Michael Faraday, of ‘silver steel’ – the addition of silver to steel in a proportion of 99.98% steel to 0.02% silver – not much but it made a huge difference, if only to the appearance of the metal. The first signs of hollow grinding came in around 1825 and it took another 60 years to bring that process to its final stage.
Flutting, or ‘Jimps’ began to appear on the top and bottom of the tang to aid grip – 40 grooves per inch was the standard. During this period there was also a fashion for very large, wedge-bladed razors marked ‘for barbers’ use’ or sometimes words like ‘improved silver steel’ but this only lasted ten years or so.
During this period English makers began adding a monarch’s sign to their razors – this comprised a crown bracketed by the initials of the monarch, e.g. ‘G (crown) R’ for ‘George Rex’. This at least helps to date these razors to a reign, as follows –
George IV – 1820-1830, William IV – 1830 – 1837, Victoria – 1837 – 1901 (not such a help to precise year dating as the previous two due to her long reign!)
1830 – 1840
This period saw further development of the blade and the tang (the part of the metal that you hold!) became more defined from the blade. Etched blades were available and ‘notched’ blades were available. Silver steel more or less replaced cast steel during this period. Blade slogans such as ‘Old English’ and ‘The Celebrated Razor’ were common. Horn handles were also impressed with slogans and the scales (handles) became more bow-shaped.
1840 – 1850
Photo-etching of wedge blades became quite popular with some beautiful designs being produced: this continued well into the 1860’s. ‘Penning’ – the method of patterning scales with silver pins – also became popular. Some used hundreds of pins and the patterns were very intricate. Common handle materials were bone and horn.
Wedge-bladed razor C. 1850(?) with tortoiseshell handle inlaid with crown motif – typical of the period. Note totally straight scales, a leftover from earlier days. (TIE collection, NFS.)
1850 – 1870
The golden age of the wedge razor. During this period some truly stunning etched blades were produced, company names began to appear on the tang and even the spine of the blade was sometimes decorated with fancy designs. Handles were made out of many different materials – Ivory, horn, bone were all used and inlaid with silver and even precious stones. A notable introduction in 1868 was the use of celluloid for scales – designs really did take off from this point! This period also saw the introduction of the ‘frameback’ razor, a blade with a heavy spine and the thinnest possible blade (non-removable) that gained immediate popularity.
Horn-handled razor C. 1870. Note the curve of the scales in contrast to the tortoiseshell-handled example above.
(TIE collection – NFS)
1870 – 1880
Celluloid handles became extremely popular as makers discovered the huge potential of this versatile material. Sculpted and coloured scales began to be seen and this decade more or less saw the final demise of the wedge-shaped blade as hollow grinding reached its final stages.
1880 – 1900
Machine-forged blades became common, hence the appearance of blades stamped ‘hand-forged’ or ‘hand-made’ as older-style makers strove to retain sales. A new process allowed the hollow-ground blades to be etched similarly to the old wedge blades and other processes such as gold wash further enhanced the blades’ appearance.
‘Spike’ American razor, C. 1950’s. Note the square-ended blade favoured by American companies over the ‘French point’ (round-ended) blades preferred in Europe at this time. Also the blade is quite narrow – another typical feature of American razors of this era. (TIE collection, NFS)
1900 – 1920
Celluloid was by now used almost exclusively for scales, though the new ‘Bakelite’ plastic began to make inroads. By this time the hollow-ground blade profile had reached its zenith – in 1914 the firm of J. A. Henckels offered no less than sixteen different degrees of blade profile, from full-wedge to extreme hollow-ground and four blade end-shapes in ten blade depths ranging from 3/8″ to 8/8″!
Straight razors were still popular up to the 1950’s, although an invention in 1901 by a certain King Camp Gillette spelt their demise – until now!
Who knows if men are just fed up with paying through the nose for a bit of cheap steel set in plastic that gets thrown away after a few days or if the desire to be macho is rearing its head once more? Let’s face it, if scraping off your stubble with three inches of unguarded, horribly sharp steel isn’t macho, we don’t know what is! Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that more and more men are now using straight razors for their everyday shave.
If you are considering trying out a modern straight razor, our collection of razors particularly suitable for beginners may be found in our Starter Razors section.
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“Just a quick note to say many thanks for the terrific job you did with that wedge. It went through my stubble like a knife through butter. Superb shave!”
“Thank you so much for your help; the last couple of shaves I have had this week have been nearing perfect. This has been so gratifying, as I feel I can now use the razor to its fullest, and it may become the treasured possession I hope it to be.” “Your service has been absolutely perfect; I couldn’t ask any more of you, thank you once again.”
“I just wanted to say that the Puma shaves perfectly, great job on getting a new edge on it! I am extremely happy with the results and that this 60 year old razor is now back in action, after who knows how long. Top job!”
“Thank you Adam. Sincerely appreciate your excellent customer service.”
“I just want to say that I’ve received the razor and used it and, without exaggerating, it’s now unbelievable. Can’t thank you enough, and to think I’d be scraping away and wondering why it wasn’t efficient straight from the retailers.”
“Hi Adam the T.I.Spartacus has arrived and I have to say that it is immaculate, that includes the scales as well. It sure is a eye catcher and I couldn’t be more pleased with it. Thanks very much.” [6/8 festonne spine, desert ironwood scales]"
“Absolutely excellent service from start to finish. Always answered queries clearly and concisely and gave sound advice. I was steered away from potentially spending more than I had to, given my relative beginner status. Will definitely shop here again! Cheers, Adam”
“Received my blades back today. Just completed a shave. Was the best shave I’ve had since I started using a straight razor, approx 4 years ago. A great service, thank you!”
“Without my knowledge my wife purchased a Thiers Issard desert ironwood scales for me, and I must say what a fantastic blade it is. I have had the opportunity to use it a few times it beats my old straight razor hands down which I recently had honed by you which was a very good shave on return but I must say on receiving my new straight razor I am blown away by the result. God bless my wife and thank you for the supply of such a fine piece of engineering. I would not deal with anyone other than the Invisible Edge.”
“I just returned to the office after a week-long holiday and opened my package. I can’t even begin to describe how much the razor has exceeded my expectations! Thanks for all your help!”
“Hi Adam …. I got the razors back in Saturday. They shave great! Thanks for the prompt and friendly service.”
“Just to let you know that the razor arrived safely this morning. But I also want to thank you so much for the excellent service you have given me. The razors come back wonderfully restored – a pleasure to use. Your admin is so efficient and clear about where things are up to. However, your efficiency and courtesy in providing your service has made it a real pleasure. Makes me wish I had another razor to send!”
“Hey Adam. Got the Dovo. Simply a beaut. Many many thanks for sending it out to me today” [Dovo Stainless Steel Buffalo Horn IE010041]
“I got the razor back safe and sound last week and used it for the first time at the weekend – Perfect! Thanks for your help”
“Many thanks for honing and re-pinning my Puma razor. I’m delighted with how smooth and sharp it is, it’s probably the best shave I’ve ever had. I have sensitive skin and not a single nick or bit of irritation.”
“I ordered a dovo razor, razor oil and a strop. Fast and well packaged delivery. Really well sharpened and oiled razor. Rated 10 and praise. I will buy other items from them. Recommended. You are very good, keep it up guys.”
“Just shaved with the newly-honed razor. Amazingly smooth- absolutely delightful experience. Thanks very much.”
“Just wanted to say thank you for the advice you have been able to provide on straight razors, honing and stropping. I recevied your honing stones this morning and following your advice I’ve been able to restore the edge of my Boker King Cutter and once again enjoy a pleasant shave with no pulling/tugging. I did purchase a Dovo Astrale from you 5-6 months ago, this is still wonderfully sharp, no need to re-hone this baby yet. I so use the two straights alternately so it is a true credit to your professionalism and workmanship. Just wanted to let you know my appreciation for your advice and work, and once again thank you for inspiring the confidence in myself to give it a go.”
“Just got around to trying this razor after getting it from you last week – holy cow, the edge on this thing is nuts. I thought I was getting good at putting my own edges on razors but this was was in another league compared to anything I’ve had from anyone else or my own honing.”
“It’s Arran here again wanting to firstly say a huge thank you for my recent purchase it’s been a revelation and am glad to say my technique is improving each shave and very much enjoying the straight razor experience! Even so much so that I’m already wanting to add to my razor collection”
“Just to let you know the razor arrived safe and sound and looks absolutely fantastic. Many thanks – and hopefully will be shopping with you in January!”
“Just got it. Absolutely sensational!”
“… the Spartacus razor was here awaiting our return and it is absolutely STUNNING!!! The rams horn is really something else and the blade itself is a complete work of art. He is over the moon. And the brown leather holder is perfect for it”
“Received package thanks. Never used a straight razor before. Just had a go and perfect. No cuts and I used both hands as the experienced boys do. Maybe beginers luck mind, however I did take my time as i was really nervous. I think im converted now.”
“I have just shaved with my beautiful Dovo Natural Razor and what a lovely experience, ready to go, super sharp and the shave I have been looking for for so long. Delivery was exactly as stated. Your advice was spot on. So nice to deal with a great company like yours.”
“I really appreciate the care you’ve shown in this. It’s probably fair to say that this is the best customer service I’ve ever received when buying something online before. I really appreciate it.”
“Hi I would just like to say I’m extremely happy with my new razors especially the boker what a beautiful piece. The quality is outstanding and the service I’ve had from you has been exceptional I’ve only had a handful of open shaves so far but thoroughly enjoying every part of the new shaving even the little nicks I’m getting but a little more practice and I’ll get there. All your products that I’ve tried so far have also been very good so I will use no other company for shaving products other than the invisible edge.”
“I would like to say a big thank you for the help and advice with my first straight razor purchase. You saved me money in addition to providing the highest standard of service. I will now recommend anyone new or skilled to you, and will continue my trading with only you. My razor arrived in no time and sharper than I thought possible.”
“Would just like to say thank you for this new razor [IE030205] it’s absolutely beautiful and after a short test it’s pinging hair away like its nothing. I’m actually pleased the previous razor was out of stock, and have just ordered a pouch to go with. Thank you again.”
“Just to let you know that the razor arrived today and I couldn’t be happier with my purchase. First shave done and I’m very happy with the size/weight/finish of the razor. Many thanks for your advice/information the other day and I look forward to doing business with you in the future.”
“Received my newly sharpened razor today. Looks great cannot believe how sharp and clean and shiny it looks. All trace of rust has gone. Thanks for an excellent job.”
“I just want to thank you for your support in every step of my purchase. I liked my strop and whetstone but the straight razor, I can’t describe it with any word. I am using a different brand and this is my first Thiers and it is like the Nirvana of the straight razors. From now on I have a 7/8 war axe :)”
“FYI, I received the TI and used it for the first time this evening. The razor shaves like a dream and I am really impressed with the quality of the workmanship – great razor!”
“I have just received the parcel, this razor is like a piece of art… Thank you so much !”
“Hi Adam received the Ralf Aust and just wanted say what a razor and what a shave” [Ralf Aust 6/8 Horn, French Point IE280002]
“I have made several purchases from Invisible Edge now. They are always friendly, able to offer expert advice on all aspects of cut throat razor shaving and their products are fantastic.”
“I am writing this to express my 100% satisfaction with your products,and information from your website. So happy to be one of your customers. Thank you.”
“Brush arrived OK. Very pleased with the quality for the price. Super soft yet firm enough. Beats the competition by some margin. Many thanks.”
“Just thought I’d let you know my Ralf Aust razor arrived. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and a pleasure to use. Thank you for the swift posting and I will definately use your company again.”
“Many thanks for the service over the past few months. I have ordered numerous items from the website and I am delighted with them; the craftsmanship is exquisite. Thank you for providing an excellent source of goods that are usually so difficult to come by. I used to find shaving tedious but now it is an absolute joy and a relaxing experience”
“Received [Aust 5/8] last Friday and used this weekend and last. It’s an absolute joy to use — far exceeds other straight razors I’ve used. Extremely pleased all round — many thanks for your help and advice.”
“Package received and I’m very happy and delighted with my Iwasaki razor and strop. I will be buying from you again. Cannot believe how sharp this razor is…..plus protective packaging was very good”
“Hi, received my razor and strop today, just opened it and it’s an amazing looking blade. Think I made a good choice, thanks so much.”
“All was received and very pleased with the products and service – I definitely look forward to using your services again in the future.”
“A great big thank you to you and your team the stone is beautiful wonderful colour, the stone was packed to perfection. Very happy with both my stones from you and your team.”
“I ordered the Dovo Bismark (and other bits) from you on Friday afternoon. Just a quick message to say a big thanks for your advice (and patience). Everything turned up this morning and just tried my new Bismark this evening. Just amazing. It felt so much easier to use than the shavette I’ve been using and has to be the closest shave I’ve ever had. It must be beginers luck as I have got away without nicking myself too. I’m definitely a convert now.”
“Hi Adam,That was quick, they arrived yesterday morning! You’ve done a brilliant job, thank you. They look great and I can’t wait to try them out”
“I would like to thank you for all your help and advice about picking a straight razor. I have taken my first shave and I am extremely pleased with the results. Super sharp. Fantastic service.”
“Thanks for your good services. I will come back to you soon for my next razor and shaving accessories”
“Goods received. All good. Very fast! Very impressed with the strop bed. I’ll be back.”
We have always used the term "straight razor" but in truth most people know this type of razor as a "cut-throat razor" or, less frequently, as an "open razor". It really doesn't matter, all these terms relate to the same implement.
We have a variety of razor starter kits which include everything necessary to start your venture into straight razor shaving. They also make an ideal shaving gift. This section also includes some entry level razors which are good choices for a beginner. Alternatively you can put together your own choices and perhaps upgrade the razor or strop. Please just ask if you need help.
We ship Worldwide, and shipping is free to all countries for orders over £125, but there is a charge for orders of a lower value. Full details may be found in our Delivery and Returns Policy. Prices are determined in GBP. For your convenience you are able to see indicative prices in U.S. Dollars and Euros but payment will be taken in GBP and there will inevitably be some variation to the U.S. Dollar and Euro prices shown. We accept payment by all major credit and debit cards as well as through Paypal.
If you are just starting out with a straight razor then we have a wealth of information on the website for beginners. Please visit our Information section which includes advice about choosing a cut-throat razor, how to strop a razor and much more. We are also always happy to offer advice and assistance where we can. Please just ask.
Our aim is to help our customers keep their razors in use. Now and again every razor will benefit from being honed. As not all our customers wish to learn how to hone we offer a straight razor honing and stropping service where we will sharpen your cut-throat razor on our premises and return it to you. This service is available for all razors we sell, vintage razors and some other brands of new razor but there are brands of new razor that we will not accept. Please see our Sharpening Service section for more details. We also offer a service to fit scales (razor handles) purchased from us.
This term relates to the fact that once unfolded from the scales (i.e. the handle) the razor's edge is open or unprotected, as opposed to a safety razor where the edge is shielded to some extent.