"It's a cutthroat business," joked Hank Belasco of Los Angeles, one of probably fewer than a dozen serious collectors of straight razors in the United States.
Belasco, 53, who lives in the Western San Fernando Valley and who is in the printing business, had seen our recent column on razor collecting. He told us that he was "looking for something to do" five years ago when his wife, Geraldine, got him interested in this relatively unusual collectible.
Now, he said, he has approximately 850 straight razors on display in his home's screened-in patio, which has become, in effect, his "razor room." The collection is worth approximately $25,000, he estimated.
Few Serious Collectors
"I may have one of the top three or four (straight razor) collections in the country," Belasco said in a telephone interview. "It's so hard to dig up these guys (collectors)."
By his best estimate, he said, there are fewer than a dozen serious razor collectors in the United States and just a handful abroad. There doesn't appear to be a collector's association, either, he added.
Even the leading book on the subject, "Straight Razor Collecting" by Robert A. Doyle (Collector Books, 1980), is out of print, he said. Doyle is a Fishkill, N. Y., auctioneer with whom Belasco stays in touch.
Belasco says he finds antique razors at swap meets and antique shops but has also uncovered valuable razors by mail. He recalled ordering 100 razors advertised in a knife journal for $100. "I found five or six excellent ones in that batch that made the $100 a bargain," he said.
Among the most valuable razors in his collection is a two-bladed one dating to the early days of this country. He purchased it for $650 at an antique show in Pasadena three years ago, he said.
Other valuable items in his collection include a razor with an ivory handle containing silver pins creating a pattern, razors with sterling-silver handles and a Chinese instrument with characters etched on the blade.
Belasco said he keeps in touch with collectors and dealers in Great Britain, where straight razors have a long history and where they still are referred to as "cutthroats" and "Sweeney Todds."
Among collectors, he said, the most popular British razors were produced by the Wade and Butcher firms, in which the art of designing a quality razor was handed down from father to son.
The Germans, he said, knew how to market straight razors, creating them with imaginative handles in the shape of, for example, animal heads or nude women.
According to historians, straight razors first appeared in Western Europe around 1600. But evidence of such shaving instruments goes back much further, to almost 2000 BC in Egypt.
Still, it wasn't until the early 1800s that quality razors began appearing, particularly those produced in the cutlery capital of Sheffield, England. It wasn't long before razor handles of gold, silver, ivory, fine wood, bone, horn, tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl began appearing on the market.
Revolution in Shaving
The demise of the straight razor can be directly traced to the formation of the Gillette Safety Razor Co. The firm's now-ubiquitous product first appeared on the American market in 1903, when King C. Gillette's brainstorm led to company sales of 51 razors and 168 blades the first year--and eventually to a revolution in the shaving industry.
Collectors say early Gillette models are still relatively easy to locate and aren't worth anywhere near the value of the older straight razors.
Belasco invites other collectors or interested parties to telephone him at (213) 747-5100.
He said his collection is an instant conversation piece whenever guests drop over: "Everyone's first statement is, 'Oh my God!' "
But then, he added, they see his wife's "wise monkey" collection . . . but that's another story.
Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.