GUEST COLUMN | Brushing up

It takes a lot of trust to let someone shave your face with a straight razor. But from what the old timers used to say, there's no better or closer shave.

My great grandfather shaved with a mug, brush, and straight razor. So did other men in my family.


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As a child growing up in Ashdown, Arkansas, I would watch them lather up the soap with their brush. The ads on TV showed convenient cans of all kinds of shaving cream, but my great grandfather and others still used a mug and brush.

In the old westerns, it seemed as if the first thing every cowboy did after a long trip on horseback was to ride into town, slap a coin down on a saloon bar, train a beer, and then ask where he could get a bath and a shave.

I suspect that the bath part may have been a bit exaggerated (bathing wasn't as common then as we know it to be today), but a barber shave was available and common for those who could afford it.

The old western barbers would wrap the cowboy's face and neck with a hot towel, and then lather up the brush, paint it on thoroughly, and then out came the straight razor.

As a small boy, I just knew that's how I would shave. Of course, sans the horse, saloon, and barber.

I'd lather up and shave myself.

But by the time my generation was shaving, the mug and brush had all but disappeared. In the movies, straight razors moved from western barbershops to horror films.

The shaving selection at the drug store was narrowed down to safety razors and cans of Barbasol.

So for several years, I bought cans of Barbasol. But my thoughts of brushing on lathered soap for a close shave, just like the men and my family had done, never left me.

One day several years ago, I was in a drug store when I noticed an unfamiliar product in the men's shaving section. It was a round bar of soap. Shaving soap.

I bought it. And I bought the brush sitting next to it. I took them home and decided I'd give it a whirl.

It didn't seem complete without a straight razor, so I didn't use it all of the time, but periodically I'd get it out and lather up to shave.

I assumed that I was one of the last people to use a mug and brush at all for shaving. And then I attended a fair in Belton, Texas.

There, I came across a man who was selling shaving handmade brushes, brush stands, and homemade shaving soaps.

It appeared that my an assumption was flawed. He told me that it was flawed.

His name is Mike and he said that the mug and brush, and the straight razor have made a big comeback. With the beauty of his handmade brushes, I could see why.

His selection was large, but I kept coming back to a dark wood he'd used to make a brush. I asked him about it.

He said it was ebony box elder and that he'd ordered the wood from Ukraine. It arrived before the war.

I felt the brushes. I turned it over and over, looking at it. I bought it and the stand.

Now, I was committed. When I went home, I was going to start using a mug and brush exclusively.

I took a photo and sent it to my mom. She sent me back a photo of my great grandfather's mug and brush. I had no idea she'd inherited it. My great grandfather has been gone for decades.

She said I could have it. She also reminded me of a straight razor my father had given me years ago. It's an antique, but she said that with the razor strops my father had left me, I could bring the razor back into service. Which is what I plan to do.

There's something simpler and more thorough about many of the old ways. There are lots of ads still on today touting the smooth shaves you get from shaving creams and safety razors. But razor blades are crazy expensive and they don't last long.

Unlike straight razors and soap from a mug and brush.

Now, if I can just find a cowboy town with a cowboy barber. I could use a few lessons before I shave myself with that straight razor.


John's latest book, "Puns for Groan People," and volumes 1 and 2 of his series "Write of Passage: A Southerner's View of Then and Now" are available on his website,, where you can also send him a message and hear his weekly podcast.

©2022 John Moore

photo Columnist John Moore bought a new shaving brush, a lot like his great grandfather's. He intends to use it. (Photo by John Moore)

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