Originally created 01/19/99

Barber shop treasures



George Schram got his first shaving mug on his 18th birthday -- as a gift from his parents.

The secondhand porcelain vessel adorned with images of a steam locomotive had a certain charm -- and someone else's name stenciled along the gold rim.

"They bought it for me to use," he said. "But it's really what got me interested in all this."

Forty-five years later, the occupational shaving mug is still around -- and in the company of scores of others.

Although shaving never really excited Mr. Schram, the mugs characterize his perennial obsession with barbering and its contributions to American culture.

Barbershops, he said, epitomized the social gentry of yesteryear. The town barbers knew everyone -- and everything. Their shops were sanctuaries where men talked current affairs, politics and business.

"They hung together in barbershops just like they did in bars, or at the old country store," he said.

And the shaving mug, often adorned with the owner's name and an image in keeping with his occupation or trade, was a uniquely personal item.

"It was one of the few things that men had that belonged to them," he said. "They used it every day. It was theirs and theirs alone."

From anvils to elks, bluebirds to buggies, the mugs told the stories of their owners. Town barbers kept racks where regular customers kept their personal mugs ready for use.

Today, Mr. Schram's home is a memorial to the bygone days of barbering, complete with a walnut mug cabinet that belonged to a third-generation Ohio barber whose great-grandfather had it made for his shop.

One of his favorites is a mug belonging to W.M. Schenk, a farmer in Mr. Schram's boyhood hometown. "I used to help him shovel snow when I was a little kid. His wife gave it to me after he died."

Barbershops in hotels didn't have occupational mugs. But those planning extended stays could be issued one with a number. "In hotels, you were a number as long as you were there."

Some mugs were decorated with a peculiar feature, called a lithophane. A photo imprinted into the porcelain bottom was visible when the mug was held up to light.

"I'd love to know the story behind every one of those people. Each one had his own life, his own personality," Mr. Schram said.

Many mugs were made in Europe's finest porcelain centers, including Limoges, France. American artisans decorated them according to their users' taste -- and occupations.

The practice of making and using occupational shaving mugs was popular from roughly 1880 to 1925, when the Pure Food & Drug Act became law -- requiring sterilization and banning reuse of many products.

"It all became disposable after that," Mr. Schram said. Customers no longer kept mugs at the barbershop, and the ornate glass barber bottles -- no longer refillable or reusable -- became relics of the past.

"There's no telling how many thousands of these things were just thrown away," Mr. Schram said, confessing a secondary addiction to the lavishly decorated, often hand-blown barber bottles that once contained everything from wildroot and witch hazel to hair tonic and alcohol.

Mr. Schram is a member of the National Shaving Mug Association, whose membership includes barber memorabilia aficionados from as far away as England and Japan.

"The older I get the worse it gets," he confessed. "Instead of smoking or drinking, I do this."

But he only collects the shaving items -- never uses them.

"Actually, I hate to shave," said Mr. Schram, who has worn a beard for more than 30 years.

Robert Pavey can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.