Shaving Tips from a Vintage Barber’s Manual

From the tools we use to the brands we trust, much has changed since the days of the straight-razor shave. However, while the details of shaving have evolved over time, the core fundamentals remain largely unchanged. To better understand how it all began, we examined a series of old barbershop manuals—written at the turn of the 20th century—in search of wisdom. The first is an essay on shave tools, written by Napoleon Le Blanc in 1895 for a Kansas City barber’s catalogue. The others are versions of The Barber’s Manual, a standardized handbook once published by the Associated Master Barbers of America (we chose editions from 1898 and 1911). Here are some handpicked insights.

On Acquiring the Proper Tools

"Always buy the best and highest grade of razors, hones and strops. Then you will be prepared to do the best work. You may argue that some Barbers have good enough success with cheap tools, but you fail to realize that such Barbers, with the use of better tools, would become artists and experts." (Essay on Barbers' Razors, Razor Hones, Razor Strops and Razor Honing, 1895)

The Takeaway: A shoddy blade may get the job done, but that shouldn’t be your only priority. For a close shave that looks and feels superb, we recommend using a safety razor.

On Choosing a Soap

"Recently, a writer in one of the journals published in the interest of barbers, said most truly: ‘Cheap soaps are an abomination in disguise.’ You might as well try to fly as to soften a man's beard with that kind of stuff." (The Barber’s Manual, 1898)

The Takeaway: When assembling your shave kit, every piece matters, including your choice of cleanser. Schulz & Malley Cleansing Face Wash pairs a simple, effective formula with an old-school apothecary vibe.

On Prepping the Beard

“It makes little difference how good or sharp the razor, or how skillful the barber, unless the beard is properly prepared, the shave will leave the customer's face irritated, with a smarting and burning sensation that is anything but pleasant.” (The Barber’s Manual, 1898)

The Takeaway: A great shave demands preparation, not just good technique. To soften your scruff and cut down on razor burn, preface your shave with a preshave oil.

On The Proper Use of a Badger Hair Brush

“Apply the lather with the handle of the brush in the palm of the right hand, allowing the ends of your fingers to work down into the bristles to keep them from spreading too much and to enable you to handle the brush more easily. It must be used with a rotary movement, which not only works the lather into the roots of the hair, but enables the brush to make more lather in itself.” (The Barber’s Manual, 1911)

The Takeaway: There’s a right way—and a wrong way—to wield a badger hair. For more tips on properly loading your brush, check out our handy how-to.

On the Merits of Speedy Shaving

“One of the greatest mistakes a young barber can make is the early attempt to acquire extraordinary speed. Shaving and trimming the beard is a luxury, rather than a necessity. Good workmanship, therefore, consists in the ability to execute a shave, or hair or whisker trim, in such a manner as will leave the subject appearing to the best advantage.” (The Barber's Manual, 1898)

The Takeaway: The purpose of shaving is to look and feel great, so a quick, shoddy hack job contradicts common sense. Start slow, with a focus on proper technique, before turning your attention to speed.

On Wielding Your Instrument

“If a razor is put on the face too lightly, it denotes lack of confidence. If too heavily, it denotes carelessness. Have confidence without carelessness.” (The Barber's Manual, 1911)

The Takeaway: Everything in moderation. If you shave with a heavy instrument, like a metal safety razor, hold it at the base of the handle and let the weight of the razor do the work.

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