A Primer on Collecting Shaving Mugs
The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – November 2006
A history of the shaving mug will tell you that there was a time when shaving was more of a chore than it is today. Hot water was not available from the tap, so often the water had to be pumped from a well, boiled on a wood burning kitchen stove, and then carried to the bathroom – and then one had to shave with poor lighting. However, if you could afford the 10 cent cost, you could go to a barber shop, relax while reading the Police Gazette, meet friends, buy a cigar and get a professional shave with hot towels and your own shaving mug and soap.
This period, from 1870-1920, was a time when changes were rapidly taking place throughout the country. The industrial revolution was creating new jobs and many unique products. Immigrants were arriving from diverse countries to fill jobs and bring new skills. Almost every man owned a shaving mug either at home or at his barber shop. As a result, there are many shaving mugs available from this period for today’s collector. On any day, a collector can connect to eBay and find 150 to 300 shaving mugs for sale. This level of availability has been the case for several years and appears to be a continuing trend. Mugs sell from $10 to $5000, so they are accessible to everyone who has an interest in these historic and handsome items.
As with any collectible, you should ask yourself some questions so that you will feel comfortable with your collection:
How much money is available for your hobby? Attractive mugs used in the home come in a variety of shapes and decorations and are available from $10 -$150. Mugs used in barber shops and displaying the name of the owner range from $50 to $5000.
How much space do you have to display the shaving mugs? Most collectors purchase mug racks that each hold 35 -70 mugs. They usually hang on a wall, so some wall space is necessary. Although shaving mugs are not large (about the size of a generous coffee cup) and are easy to display, you should consider the space available in your home. Mug racks that were used in barber shops remain available and currently cost about $15-$20 per mug hole. Newer racks made for collectors are generally much cheaper.
Set a goal for collecting. The varieties of mugs available are numerous. Some collectors want a sample of each type, some specialize in a particular category and some concentrate on particular manufacturers. A focus may enable you to complete a sub-collection of specialty mugs.
A basic distinction in collecting shaving mugs is between those shaving mugs that were used in barber shops and those that were used in the home. Mugs used in the home provide more variety of style, shape and decoration. Many were purchased at local stores and through catalogues like Sears and Roebuck, and do not have the owner’s name on them.
Shaving Mugs Used in the Home
Perhaps the most plentiful mug is the decorated mug with all types of designs – some hand-painted and some with transfers. These mugs were the least expensive and were found in almost every home. Many are in the shape of a coffee mug while some have a partition similar to a moustache cup so that only half a cake of soap is needed. Decorated mugs often were given as gifts for Christmas, birthdays and special occasions. Some people think that decorated mugs, with flowers, butterflies and birds, are feminine. Yet almost every man had a mug like this. The price range for decorated mugs is broad, and the highest prices are for mugs from porcelain manufacturers like Lenox and R.S. Prussia. Mugs with collectible marks like these often bring higher prices because there are cross collectors. An R.S. Prussia shaving mug with the best mark could bring $200 while most decorated mugs can be purchased for $10-$50.
Glass and Advertising Mugs
As sales promotions, many shaving soap manufacturers gave free or inexpensive mugs to customers. Their hope was that the customer would continue to purchase their brand of shaving soap. One of the oldest such advertising mugs is the Golden Knight Shaving Soap clear glass mug. It can be purchased for about $10. Shulton Old Spice promoted its soap with a variety of mugs with a sailing ship on the front; these can also be purchased in the $10 range. Avon glass mugs are more modern but they are also readily available. Wild Root distributed a frequently-collected double bowl mug in the 1920s; it was made by Buffalo China and is in the $100 price range. A number of manufacturers of shaving-related items have produced mugs over the past 100 years, and these mugs make a very nice sub-collection.
As the name implies, scuttle mugs are in the shape of a coal scuttle. They are some of the earliest shaving mugs and several have patents from the 1870s. The hot water is placed in the reservoir where the brush can be dipped; the soap is held on a bowl near the handle. Scuttle mugs are plentiful, come in numerous designs and were made by a wide variety of manufacturers including Wade, Staffordshire, James Kent Foley, Dresden and Griffin China. Prices range from $20-$100.
A character mug is similar to a scuttle mug except that it is in the shape of an object, person or animal. These mugs are available in over 100 designs, such as Native American, fish and swan. The price range of character mugs is $50-$400.
Early metal shaving mugs were made by tinsmiths. They can be found for about $25-$50. Mugs made of brass, pewter, silver and silver plate have also been produced in very interesting configurations. Sterling silver mugs are the most expensive at around $200. Silverplate mugs, many with art nouveau designs, sell for about $50. Other metal mugs fall within these ranges.
When people vacationed they frequently brought back a souvenir to remember the experience. Souvenir shaving mugs come in decorated and scuttle forms and represent many vacation locations. Mugs were also used to commemorate events like the completion of a church, school, or town hall. Some of these mugs have photographs of the building or event. Souvenir mugs are generally found for $20-$50.
Shaving Mugs Used in Barber Shops
Barber shops began to sell customers mugs with the owners’ names on them in part because it was thought that men developed shaving rash from sharing the same soap. In reality, the rash was a result of unsterilized razors, not soap. When first offered by barber shops, the mugs were sold for $0.50-2.50 each and were kept in a mug rack in the shop. This service paid dividends to the barber since customers would generally return to the barber shop where their mugs were displayed. The mugs used in barber shops had many designs, but almost all of them included the owner’s name and were hand painted. Prior to 1917, most shaving mug blanks were made in Germany or France. They were then shipped to the US for painting.
Mugs that were decorated were colorful and often the most expensive to purchase since the painting was often complex. Originally, they could cost as much as $2.50. The depictions include floral designs, scenic designs, birds, butterflies and comic figures. Decorated mugs today are among the least expensive to collect, and range from $25-$200.
Many men belonged to fraternal organizations during this period for a very practical reason; fraternal organizations often paid burial fees and death benefits for members in good standing. The organizations all had rituals and symbols that made membership unique. Some like the Elks offered drinking on Sunday which circumvented the “blue laws.” Fraternal shaving mugs for common organizations like the Masons, Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias are plentiful and cost about $75. More rare fraternal mugs range from $100-$1000.
These mugs are the most sought after by collectors and are characterized by paintings which depict the owner’s occupation. They are representative of the era when shaving mugs were used, so the scenes of horses and wagons, men working at their jobs and tools of the trade painted on the mugs give us a glimpse into the everyday life of this historical period. Occupational mugs range in price from $75-$5000.
All collectors should become knowledgeable about the items they collect. Fortunately, there are many resources available. Contact the National Shaving Mug Collectors Association (NSMCA) and attend their semi-annual meetings where educational presentations are made and friendly members are available to answer questions and help the beginner. Information is available at www.nsmca.net, or you can contact Dick Leidlein, 3443 Boston Twp. Line Road, Richmond, IN 47374, telephone (765) 935-7736. The NSMCA also has a library with a repository of articles going back about 50 years. Books on shaving mugs include Occupational Shaving Mugs by W. Porter Ware; [amazon_link id=”0960068015″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Antique Shaving Mugs of the United States[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0960068031″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Occupational and Fraternal Shaving Mugs[/amazon_link] by Robert Blake Powell; Fraternally Yours by Bernie Lukco; [amazon_link id=”0764306952″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Barber Shop History and Antiques[/amazon_link] by Chris Jones; [amazon_link id=”0764312359″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Best of Shaving Mugs[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0887407617″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Shaving Mug and Barber Bottle Book[/amazon_link] by Keith Estep.
For whatever reason you decide to collect – good luck and happy hunting!