Simple question leads to plethora of info

Simple question leads to plethora of info by Bob Karolevitz I was talking to a young lady recently, as I am wont to do, and the subject of razor strops came up.

�What are they?� she wanted to know. �Grandpa always said he�d get out the strop if we were naughty. He never did.�

I explained to her that it was a strip of leather which barbers and men at home used to sharpen their straight-edge razors with before each shave.

�What�s a straight-edge razor?� was her next question.

I could tell then that there was a a real generation gap. Maybe even two. It would take all of my communicating skills to answer her.

�Well, first of all, men who shaved in the old days used a folding gadget with a three-inch blade of fine steel to cut off their whiskers,� I began.

To show her how much I knew, I continued: �Razor comes from the French razoir and the Latin radere meaning to scrape � and that� what men did.

�A straight-edge razor was a wicked instrument in the wrong hand, but barbers especially knew how to handle it,� I went on. �But even they slipped occasionally and caused a few nicks and cuts, but they always had a styptic pencil handy.�

�What�s a styptic pencil?� she asked, perplexedly.

I told her that was a small stick containing an astringent substance used to stop the flow of blood. �It�s from the Greek styptikos,� I answered, proud of my show of knowledge.

Then I figured that since I was already in so deep, I might just as well tell her about shaving mugs and shaving brushes before she asked about them, too.

�Shaving mugs were cups of soap where the lather was brushed out of to soften the beards of the shavee,� I said. �Barbers usually had a mug with each customer�s name on it, and it would be kept in a rack until the next time he came in. The soap was always brushed on profusely.�

�Shaving was a real art before there were electric shavers and safety razors,� I explained. �Men would go to the barbershop to get a hot towel put on their face and let somebody else do the work while they tipped back in the chair in great comfort. They also learned the latest news from the barber who talked while he shaved.

�Now all of that has changed. Instead of being satisfied with a styptic pencil, the victim of a few minor nicks and cuts wants to sue, so barbers have gone out of the shaving business rather than invest in expensive insurance,� I said.

�Barber, incidentally, stems from the Latin barba for beard,� I threw in just to show her that I was somewhat of an expert on the subject.

We talked about red-and-white barber poles and even barbershop quartets, which I guess came about when men had to do something while they waited their turn.

I also told her that sideburns came from General Ambrose E. Burnside, the Civil War officer, who wore them. I was just full of trivia like that.

At any rate, our conversation all started with her question about razor strops. I�m glad she didn�t pick a topic like electromagnetic energy. I�d have had to fake my answers.

� 2002 Robert F. Karolevitz

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