Rachel Richardson reports:
Jerry Rosenthal likes to think of himself as a treasure-hunter.
But the riches he seeks aren’t buried in dirt or sand. They’re found at flea markets and antique shops, on online auction sites and through word-of-mouth with others who share his passion.
Rosenthal, 69, is a collector of barberiana. It has nothing to do with Conan the Barbarian memorabilia. Instead, it refers to collecting razors and shaving equipment.
His loot includes more than 600 gleaming safety razors in brass, silver and nickel – many in their original packaging – and highly decorative razor blade tins and soft brushes.
One of the crown jewels in Rosenthal’s collection is a recent acquire, an 1896 Kampfe safety razor set in a mother of pearl handle with a sterling silver razor head in “fantastic” condition. A friend spotted the find, produced by German brothers Otto and Frederick Kampfe who patented the first safety razor in the United States, at a mall in Nebraska. The kit, which Rosenthal values between $5,000 and $6,000, includes the original leather case, stropper and 12 blades.
The collection spans seven display cases and the walls of a loft in his West Chester home.
Rosenthal declined to give a value for his collection. To him, the items are priceless.
“The thing that fascinated me with the safety razors is there are so many variations,” he explains. “There are razors you wind up and some with a safety light at the top. There’s a number of safety razors that look like fountain pens and there are ones you plug in. A lot of them are quite stunning, the old ones especially.”
Restoring birdcages was Rosenthal’s passion in 1994 when he stumbled across a 1929 boxed Schick razor at a flea market.
Intrigued, he bought it and showed it to his wife, Katie, who suggested he collect them.
“She will never forget those words,” said Rosenthal with a laugh.
Rosenthal began trolling online auction sites for collectibles. After initially spending “quite a bit” out of pocket, he became wise and made the hobby a self-sustaining one.
“When I was out hunting for safety razors, if I found duplicates, I would get those to sell,” he said.
Rosenthal knows his collection is an odd one. Barberiana aficionados learn to develop a thick skin to deal with all the razzing about their hobby, he said.
“I show my neighbors and after about five minutes their eyes start glassing over,” he said. “My wife would say, ‘Don’t get him started.’”
It wasn’t long before Rosenthal found others who shared his passion and built up an online network of barberiana enthusiasts. Given the craft’s growing popularity, he pondered aloud to Katie about not seeing any shaving conventions organized.
“She said, “Maybe you should organize one.’ She won’t forget those words, either,” he said with a chuckle.
So Rosenthal organized the first International Shaving Collectibles Meeting – the first of its kind in the country – in 2004.
The annual event, held each year in West Chester, features lectures, swapping and selling sessions, networking opportunities and small-scale exhibitions. More than 30 collectors and dozens of curious spectators from across the nation – and even Norway – attended this year’s event. (Next year’s event is set for Oct. 12-13, with venue details to be announced at www.razormeeting.com.)
Rosenthal, a publishing executive, devotes several hours a week to his hobby. While he peruses online auction sites, he prefers to forage for his finds at flea markets and antique shops, where such gems prove a rarer find.
For Rosenthal, the thrill is in the hunt.
“It’s almost like walking on the street and finding money,” he said.
“It’s like fishing; you don’t know if you’re going to catch anything, but it’s the expectation that keeps you going every week.”
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