History in a Shaving Mug: More than Barbershop Banter

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Although this photograph does not capture the barbers of the Victorian Era, this Babershop Quartet, the “Original Four Quartet,” does depict the longstanding tradition of the “wet shave” and shaving mug. (From the Photograph Collection of the Berks History Center Research Library, Penn Wheelman Folder)

During the Victorian Era, it was common for a man to visit his barber for a “wet shave”.  To perform a wet shave, the barber placed a round bar of soap into a mug, and then scrubbed that bar with a brush to produce a thick lather.  Many barbers kept individualized shaving mugs for their customers, and such mugs became popular gifts for men.

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The Berks History Center is home to a collection of 25 shaving mugs which came from the barber shop of  Fred Messmer (1880-1959).  Messmer was a German immigrant who operated a barber shop on North 11th Street in Reading from about 1900 to 1943.  Each mug is decorated and marked with the name of a customer.  We are fortunate that this group survives to provide unique insight into a local barber’s clientele.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Sweet Success: Immigrants Prospered in Berks County

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Best known as the inventor of the menthol cough drop, William H. Luden (1859-1949) of Reading rose from humble beginnings to become one of America’s most successful candy makers. The son of an immigrant father from the Netherland’s, Luden quit school at the age of 15 and became an apprentice candy maker.

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In 1879, at age 20, he began making his own candies in his widowed mother’s kitchen. By developing a variety of products and employing innovative business practices, he achieved great success, and his company flourished. By 1909, Luden employed hundreds of workers and was selling five million packages of cough drops per year.

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During our inventory of the Berks History Center Collections, we found a unique Luden item: an engraved spoon which he ostensibly received as a gift on his 50th birthday. The spoon is marked “The 50th Birthday and Anniversary of Thirty Years in the Confectionery Business.” While we do not know who presented this spoon to Luden, it is nevertheless a significant artifact due to its personal connection to one of Berks County’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Article Written & Researched by Bradley K. Smith