When beards went out of style in the late 1860s, shaving at home with a straight razor was downright perilous. Barbershops had a heyday.
For hygienic reasons barbers provided each customer with his own brush and soap and personalized shaving mug. Often these mugs were decorated with the name of the owner, sometimes with his signature or portrait, the symbols of his fraternal organization, some patriotic motifs or a photograph of his favorite painting. Best of all are those hand-painted mugs showing a man engaged in his favorite sport or in his occupation.
"Occupational shaving mugs are almost exclusively an American phenomenon," says Chris Machmer, an Annville, Pa., antiques dealer who put together an impressive array of 150 occupational shaving mugs in just five years. With few exceptions, each mug was hand painted by a decorator at a barber supply company and sold through the barbers to their customers for prices ranging from 25 cents to $5.
The safety razor and disposable blade, which came on the market before World War I, encouraged home shaving and were the death knell of the shaving mug and the barber shop as a social gathering place, a neighborhood men's club where at the end of the day the mugs were washed and placed in cubicles on a mug rack which was prominently displayed.
The decline of the shaving mug took place almost as rapidly as its popularity had grown, and by the 1930s, just as they were about to be forgotten, collectors began to gather them.
Now about four hundred men and women belong to the National Association of Shaving Mug Collectors, which meets twice a year to trade mugs and information and have an auction.
In October they met in Baltimore, and on the Sunday following their meeting and auction of tonsorial antiques, about 50 collectors gathered in the ballroom of the Quality Inn in Lebanon, Pa., to bid for the 150 occupational mugs at the auction of Chris Machmer's collection.
Mr. Machmer had photographed each mug and published his own illustrated catalog. He hired local auctioneer Clayton Kleinfelter to call the sale. "It was the best collection to be sold in a long time," said Tony Nard, an auctioneer from Milan, Pa., who sold a mug for a record $8,800 in October 1990. (The record mug was made for a doctor and shows a physician at a patient's
bedside taking his pulse with the words "Physician and Surgeon" under the picture. Doctors' and lawyers' mugs are rare; the professions thought it poor taste to advertise back then.)
Mr. Nard said he had expected his record to be broken at the Machmer sale, but it wasn't. "I thought the peanut vendor would go for $10,000," Mr. Nard declared. He was referring to a mug made for David C. Gairing, decorated with a colored photograph of a street scene showing a peanut vendor with his donkey cart. It sold for $5,000, Mr. Machmer's high estimate.
Some higher prices were paid, but generally these prices were below Mr. Machmer's printed estimates. "I collected mugs with good quality painting and I like those painted on American
blanks, though some prefer those on the denser European blanks imported here from France and Germany," said Mr. Machmer after the sale. "I made a profit, not as large as I thought I might, but I enjoyed the collection." Every lot sold, for a total of a little more than $90,000.
Each collector had his own idea of what a mug was worth and they ignored the estimates. Bernie Liekco, a collector from Columbus, Ohio, and a past president of the mug collectors' club, thought the recession caused the mug market to dip a bit and level off, especially the market for more common mugs. Also, without Chris Machmer as an underbidder, the upward spiral which the mug market witnessed in the last few years slowed down, making it a good time to buy.
Collectors paid a premium for the rare occupations. For instance, the yacht builder mug showing a boat in a boathouse sold for $5,400; there were not many yacht builders. Nor were there many electric trolley wire installers like the one shown on a mug that sold for $4,500.
A mug painted with two men using a steam tractor to ripsaw lumber went for the same high price, $4,500. The football player mug fetched $3,100 from New Jersey collector Bill Bertoia.
The top price, $6,250, was paid for a mug pictured on the 'D catalog cover showing Theo J. N. Woodhull in a Stutz Bearcat, an American-made race car. The Woodhull family in Woodhull, N.Y., were a well-known racing family, and this mug is one of only five known painted with a race car, according to the buyer, Paul Donegan, a Massachusetts collector.
Mugs picturing horse-drawn wagons are much more common. One showing a man in an open buggy sold for $400, but a carriage wheel painter's mug showing him painting four large wheels fetched $2,000. A horse-drawn hook and ladder with five firemen pushed another mug to $1,550. The mug that belonged to an iceman, painted with "The Spring Water and Ice Delivery Wagon of R. I. Neiman," the oldest ice company in America, went for $1,000. It is still in business in York, Pa.