West End memories: Shaving with a straight razor

Bill Shepard

By Bill Shepard

Have you ever shaved your face with a straight razor? Perhaps an easier question to ask would be, have you ever watched another person shave with one? And a still easier question: Have you ever seen a straight razor?
I always said that shaving with a straight razor was a real art! I believe that the last time I can remember seeing anyone use a straight razor to shave their own face was a long time ago, when I was a little boy. Safety razors were not as common in those days as was the straight razor, and that is why my Dad used his to shave with.
I liked to watch my Dad use his straight razor to shave the beard from his face. Dad would first go to the place behind the kitchen door and take from a nail driven into the door an extra-wide belt that he called a “razor strap.”
The strap hung from behind the kitchen door for as long as I could remember. Dad sometimes used it for purposes other than sharpening his razor! Anyway, when Dad was needing a shave, he would go to the door, and leaving the belt hanging on the nail, stretch it out level and begin what he called “honing his razor.” I suppose that meant sharpening his razor!
When he felt he had sharpened, or honed, the blade enough, he would lay it aside and begin preparing his face for the shave. He would get a little water from the faucet (I called it a spigot) and with a brush that was always left in the cup after a shave, he would begin to work up enough lather to cover his face.
Have you ever tried to create lather from a piece of Octagon soap? It isn’t easy! I seldom use the soft shaving cream to shave with that I do not think of Dad.
It took a little longer to get the beard off, but it worked. Knowing the process, it is understandable why men-folk didn’t bother to shave every day!
In that long-ago period, all of the mill-village folk went to the YMCA to get their mail. It was on Pearl Street in a part of the large building that also housed the Company Store. There was also a small barber shop built on the west end of the same building. Every day when Mama would send me to the YMCA to ask if we had any mail, I would often get a glimpse inside the barber shop.
If a man happened to be getting a shave, I would stand at the door and watch until the barber would find the right time to leave his client to see if the Shepards had mail. Mr. Nance, the kind barber, took care of the Post Office inside the YMCA when the regular attendant wasn’t there. We seldom had any mail, but to satisfy Mama, someone had to go inquire about it every day.
When one of my brothers joined the Navy and went away, Mama was more determined that a trip be made each day. The look on Mama’s face always made me sad when I would tell Mama we didn’t have any mail that day.
Then the war came along and my older brother went away, and it became even sadder when I would return home from my errand to the YMCA and tell Mama we had no mail.
Then came the time when it was my sister’s lot to go each day and ask for the mail. I remembered those days and the look on Mama’s face when I would return with no mail, so I would write to Mama as often as I could. I never regretted the time I spent writing to Mama.
I don’t really know what happened to the kind barber I liked to watch shave a man’s beard. I suppose he was the only person I ever saw use a straight razor besides my Dad! I do recall watching a barber shave a man’s face with a safety razor and thought “How strange!”
Everything has changed since I was a boy and that which has not changed has disappeared forever! I don’t think anyone would disagree with that statement.

Author: Rachel Howell

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