Up in Smoke: A History of Firefighting

Fire. One of man’s greatest creations. It allowed for light, heat, and the invention of the barbeque! For millenia, fire was essential to survival in one form or another. But fire was, and remains, a constant threat. Handled properly and safely, fire provided light, heat and the ability to cook delicious meals. But an act of carelessness or a lack of foresight could turn one of the most important forces known to man, into a destructive cataclysm far beyond our control.

To prevent and to manage events of the latter nature, we have firefighters, and firefighting equipment. Fire-fighters have been around ever since Ancient Rome, and they have a long and fascinating history, which this posting will explore.

Ancient Firefighting

Firemen have existed for centuries, in one form or another. There are fire-fighting teams that go back to Ancient Egypt and even Ancient Rome.

The first fire-fighting brigade of significance was established in Rome, by a man named Marcus Licinius Crassus. A wealthy businessman, Crassus employed a team of 500 men whose job it was to extinguish structural fires in the city of Rome…for a fee…to be paid…before the firefighters would even tip so much as a thimble of water…

So much for that.

The Emperor Augustus liked the idea of Rome having a firefighting force. He established the world’s first professional fire-brigade. Called the Vigiles, these men patrolled the streets at night. Upon the alarm of fire, they formed bucket-brigades and teams of laddermen and hook-men, who extinguished fires, or pulled buildings down, to prevent the fire from spreading to other structures in the surrounding areas. The Vigiles did double-duty as an early-form of police-force as well, keeping an eye out for crime, and making sure that the city was safe from both fire and thieves and generally, being vigilant. Yes, that’s where the word comes from. It’s also where we get the term “Vigilante”.

Ancient Firefighting Tools

For centuries, up until the 1800s, firefighting equipment was rudimentary. Buckets of water, long fire-hooks, to pull down buildings, ladders to reach high windows, primative hand-powered water-pumps and only moderately effective “Water-Squirts” (a handheld water-dispenser which was a bit like a modern child’s water-gun), were the main tools of the trade. Fighting a fire was less to do about putting the fire out, and more about preventing its spread. Fire-hooks were used to pull down burning buildings in danger of collapse, or to destroy buildings in the fire’s path, to create a firebreak which the flames couldn’t jump, thus containing its destructive force.

During the medieval period, firefighting was largely self-organised. Various European monarchs (such as Louis IX of France), set up state-funded fire-fighters, but also encouraged regular citizens to form their own “fire-bands”. These acted like Neighbourhood Watch committees, which patrolled the streets at night, keeping an eye out for fires and crimes in progress.

The Great Fire of London and Advances in Technology

In 1666, the ancient city of London was razed to the ground by a fire started by the King’s baker, the unfortunate Mr. Thomas Farynor. The Great Fire was a disaster unprecedented in the history of London. Sure, there had been fires before, but no fire had ever burnt down 4/5 of the city! The Great Fire of London also instituted the start of a newfangled concept in the world…insurance! For the first time ever, you could now pay for fire-insurance! An insurance-company would open an account and upon consideration of a few pounds each year, you would have fire-protection in the event of your property going up in flames. In return for your patronage, the insurance-company gave you a big, fancy metal “Fire-Mark”. This plaque was to be affixed to your residence in a prominent place (such as next to the front door), to indicate to the company’s private fire-brigade, that you were a paying customer who they were expected to help, in the event of a house-fire. And now, fighting fires was slowly getting easier, too!

By this time, the first really successful fire-pumps had been developed. They were heavy, lumbering things that needed a horse to pull them, but they did work. Their main issue, however, was that they had a very short range. You had to be right in front of the fire for the pump to be any good at all.

These early pumps were called ‘force-pumps’. This meant that water filled a piston-shaft, and the piston forced the water up a pipe and out of a nozzle on each down-stroke. On the up-stroke, the piston-shaft was again filled with water from the tank, and again, forced out by the down-stroke.

These pumps were ineffective and rather time-wasting. The man who improved them was a German inventor named Hans Haustch. He developed a suction-and-force pump in the 1600s. This meant that pumping the handle up and down both pumped out water from the piston-shaft, but also pulled more water in from the tank, creating a constant and more powerful flow of water.

Although it was an improvement, this new double-action pump was useless, relatively speaking, until the intervention of Dutchman, Jan Van Der Heyden.

van der Heyden (1637-1712), developed the one crucial bit of equipment so vital to firefighting that centuries later and every fire-station on earth still has one!…in fact, every fire-station probably has dozens of these things!

The fire-hose.

Jan van der Heyden was a Dutch inventor. He developed his newfangled ‘fire-hose’ in the 1660s. His brother Nicolaes was a hydraulic engineer…a handy person to have when designing fire-fighting equipement…and together, they developed a perfected version of the fire-hose in 1672.

Affixed to the spouts of the new double-action water-pumps, the van der Heyden Brothers’ new fire-hoses (made of leather, the only material sufficiently strong enough to cope with the pressure), allowed people for the first time to have directional, pressurised water as a means for attacking a fire. No longer was the range of your attack limited by how far you could throw a bucket or how close you could park the fire-engine, but rather, by how fast you could pump the handle. Everything else was managed by the hose. Direction, height, distance…all you had to do was point and shoot. A great improvement from standing six feet from a blazing building holding a piddly bucket of water. Despite these advances, however, in Colonial America, it was still the law in many towns that every household kept a bucket of water outside the front door at night, as a safeguard against fires. The buckets were used by the local fire-watch, and would be returned to the home-owner once the fire had been put out.

The Development of the Fire Engine

The first fire-engines, with the new water-pumps and leather hoses, hooks and ladders, axes and buckets, were developed in the 1700s. By the Georgian era, firefighting had developed to a point that it was finally practical to make a mobile firefighting unit, the fire ENGINE.

The fire-engine had been in development in the 1600s, but the first really successful versions took root at the dawn of the 18th century. Horse-drawn fire-wagons could now to be directed to any part of a city with its supply of water, hose, pump, men and equipment, to tackle a major conflagration.

It was around this time that the first modern firefighting brigades were developed. While there were still penny-pinching, profiteering private fire-companies around (they were particularly notorious in the United States), city and state governments were now establishing the first paid fire-fighters.

The first city to have such a fire-brigade was Paris. Created by order of King Louis XIV, the “Company of Pump Guards“, as it was called, was the first professional, state-funded, uniformed fire-brigade in the world.

To prevent the squabbling and fighting that had attended the Ancient Roman firefighters, and even the colonial firefighters and private firefighters in the United States, the French Government decreed that ALL firefighting missions were provided by the city, to the victim, FREE OF CHARGE.

As the 1700s progressed into the 1800s, more and more city-funded fire-brigades were established. Big cities such as London, Edinburgh and New York soon had city fire-services and organised firefighting had become a reality.


Fire-trucks are famous aren’t they? Jangling bells, wailing sirens, flashing lights, and that distinctive “fire-engine red” paintjob!

The first-ever modern fire-truck came out in the early 1900s, and belonged to the Springfield Fire Department in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. Here’s a photograph of it:

This fire-truck was made ca. 1905, an age when most motorised vehicles were still the handmade, and extremely expensive preserve of the upper classes. But it is, nonetheless, the world’s first modern fire-truck.

Victorian-era Firefighting

The 1800s saw a huge rise in urban populations, industry, and…fire. By now, most big cities had their own, state-funded fire-services. But technology was still rather primitive. To improve firefighting, a number of changes had to be made.

Fire-wagons were still horse-drawn, but to improve efficiency, the first coal-fired, steam-powered water-pumps were installed on fire-engines in the 1800s. These allowed for longer fire-fighting times, and for more men to be used fighting the fire, rather than manning the pump.

It was around this time that the fire-dog became famous.

Dalmatian dogs are a common symbol of fire-stations in the United States. They’re famous for being white with black spots, for wearing classic red fire-helmets and for rescuing people from burning buildings!

But why are they there in the first place?

Fire-dogs, the Dalmatian dogs which are so strongly associated with firehouses, are descendant from 18th and 19th century “carriage dogs”. Carriage dogs (an ancestor of the modern Dalmatian) were the canine companions of coachmen back in the days of horse-drawn carriages. They were a sort of car-alarm with fur.

In the 17 and 1800s, when nearly all transport was horse-drawn, the welfare of the horse that did the drawing was extremely important. Especially when the transport happened to be a fire-engine. To protect horses from harm, such as horse-thieves, it was common for stable-boys, grooms and coachmen to keep dogs near to the horses, to drive away people intending the animals harm.

When a fire-engine went out on a call, the dogs went along with it, again, to guard the horses against people who might want to steal or harm the horses, which in the 1800s, were valuable assets.

The 1900s saw the end of the horse-drawn carriage, but the Dalmatian dog remained. They don’t run alongside, or guard the wheels of modern fire-trucks anymore, but they have stayed a symbol of firefighting ever since.

Fire Extinguishers

For most of history, the most widespread fire-extinguisher of any kind was a bucket of water stored next to the stove, or on the front porch.

The first modern fire extinguishers were developed in the 1800s.

Capt. George William Manby, a writer and inventor from England, created the first modern fire extinguisher in 1813.

It was designed to be portable, but it was made of copper, and weighed about 12kg! But it was, nonetheless, a fire-extinguisher.

It was filled with a water-and-potassium-carbonate solution, contained under pressure. In the event of a fire, the pressurized solution could be sprayed out of the nozzle to extinguish the blaze.

In the second half of the 1800s, numerous inventors came up with extinguishers which did more than just spray ordinary water onto a fire. Starting in the 1860s, inventors created the “soda-acid” fire extinguisher, which was particularly useful for fires where there might be poisonous chemicals around.

The soda-acid extinguisher worked by having the main canister of the extinguisher filled with a mix of water, and sodium bicarbonate…baking-soda!…and a separate phial filled with sulphuric acid, sealed inside the main canister, along with the water-soda mixture.

In the event of a fire, the extinguisher (depending on the design) was either tipped upside down, or a plunger was pushed or pulled. The idea was that this motion would break the glass phial inside the extinguisher. This released the acid into the water-soda mixture. The resultant reaction created high pressure, and a lot of carbon-dioxide gas. This could be forced out of the nozzle of the extinguisher to put out the fire.

One of the more interesting types of fire-extinguishers developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries was the so-called “fire-grenade”.

An antique glass ‘grenade’ fire-extinguisher

The fire “grenade” was a sphere of glass filled with either salt-water, or the chemical carbon tetra-chloride (“C-T-C”).

Fire-grenades could be used by firemen or people in distress, to put out a fire from a distance. One simply lined up the fire in one’s sight, and threw the grenade at its base. The glass shattered and the spreading water (or chemicals, as the case might be) put out the fire, with minimal risk to the firefighter or person in distress.

In some places, fire-grenades were placed on special hair-trigger harnesses above doorways in big, public buildings. This way, if there was a fire, the grenades could fall from their harnesses into the doorways above which they were installed. This kept the doorway clear of flames, allowing people a safe escape-route (so long as you were fine with running on top of broken glass!).


Ah, the classic fire-helmet. Originally made of leather, or brass, and today more commonly made of special plastics, the fire-helmet was developed during the Victorian era, as a way of protecting firemen from two of the biggest dangers of fighting a fire: Collapsing buildings, and getting soaked.

Fire-helmets are famous for their long, sloping rear brims. These are designed to protect the neck and the back of the head, and to deflect falling water away from a fireman’s neck, and going down the back of his shirt. Meanwhile, the iconic shape is designed to protect against falling objects, such as collapsing scaffolding, bricks and other debris that might come crashing down out of a fire-weakened building.

Brass helmets were popular during the Victorian era. But they started being changed for safer plastic helmets in the 1900s because of the risk of electrocution from electrical fires. As a result, fire-helmets today are made of special, heat-resistant plastics and composite materials.

Fire Hydrants

The first ‘fire hydrants’ of a sort, were developed in the 1600s. Cities lucky enough to have running water had it transported around town in wooden mains-pipes, which were buried under the streets. In the event of a fire, firemen would dig a hole in the street to expose the water-mains below. A hand-drill was used to bore a hole into the pipe. As the water rushed out and filled the hole around the pipe, a bucket-line could be formed around the hole, filling buckets with water and sending them, hand-over-hand, to the blaze.

When the fire was extinguished, the hole in the mains pipe was plugged with a wooden bung. The hole in the street was filled in, and a marker was placed on the spot. This was so that any future firefighters would be alerted to the presence of a previous bore-hole in the area, if they ever needed to fight a fire in that street again. This is why some people still call fire-hydrants ‘plugs’ to this day; because they literally plugged the water-mains.

The modern fire-hydrant, which we see on street-corners, and which are painted bright red, came around in the 1800s. It was invented in 1801 by Frederick Graff, then chief-engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works. Ironically, the patent-papers for Graff’s invention were lost when the United States Patent Office in Washington D.C. burnt down in 1836!

The Firepole

It’s a scene played out in old movies, cartoons, T.V. shows, and in almost every episode of “Fireman Sam“; the call comes in, the alarm-bells start ringing, and firemen leap into action, jumping for the fireman’s pole, swinging around and sliding down the shaft to the ground floor of the firehouse, to jump into their uniforms, put on their helmets, start up the fire-truck and charge off to the scene of some catastrophe, red lights and sirens glaring and blaring.

The fire-pole was invented in Chicago in the 1870s. As with many inventions, necessity, and a certain level of ingenuity, gave birth to one of the most iconic pieces of firefighting equipment ever.

Firehouse No. 21 in Chicago was an all-black firehouse, and the resident captain, David Kenyon, was stupefied when he saw one of his firemen, George Reid, slide down a pole from the second storey of their three-storey firehouse to the ground floor to respond to an emergency.

At the time, fire-poles did not exist; Reid had actually used the lashing-pole which the firehouse used in transporting bales of hay for the fire-wagon horses. The pole was used as a securing-point when hay-bales were loaded onto the hay-wagon, to stop them rolling off during their deliveries.

Kenyon was so impressed that he pestered the Chicago fire-chief over and over and over again to give him permission to install a similar, purpose-built pole in his firehouse. Eventually, the chief gave in, and agreed – provided that the funds needed for the installation and maintenance of the pole came entirely out of the pockets of the firemen who used it.

And so it came to be, that in 1878, the world’s first fireman’s pole was installed at Chicago Firehouse No. 21.

At first, nobody paid any attention to the pole, and other firemen thought it was stupid and ludicrous. It was some ridiculous toy to play around with when the boys at firehouse 21 had nothing else to do!

But other firehouses began to sit up and take notice when they realised that Firehouse 21 was responding to emergencies much faster, especially at night.

Not having to deal with doors, staircases, landings and overcrowded corridors meant that the firemen could literally slide into action and be ready to go in just a few minutes; compared to having to run down stairs, hold doors open, and risk tripping and falling over, especially in the dark.

With the benefits of fire-poles established, every firehouse in the world began to be fitted with them. To make them stronger and longer-lasting, the world’s first metal fire-pole (made of brass), was installed in Boston, in 1880.

An old fire-pole with important safety-features:
Double trap-doors, and a safety-cage

These days, fire-poles are sometimes considered more of a hindrance than a help, because of the dangers of sprained or broken legs and ankles, and risks of losing one’s grip, and falling. Some countries have outlawed them altogether, but other countries continue to use them, albeit, with better safety-measures in-place, such as protective railings, and padded landing-mats. These prevent accidental falls, and cushion any hard landings.


How to Buy Straight Razors and their Gear Secondhand

In glancing over my blog, I noticed that my posting on straight razors seems to be one of the most popular ones that I’ve written so far. If you want to read it, it may be found here. 

I’m writing this as a sort of follow-up, or companion-post to my previous one. This won’t go into all the nitty gritty details of every little bit of everything, but it will cover in-depth, how to buy a straight-razor (and associated gear) for far below retail price.

The Appeal of Straight Razor Shaving

In our money-conscious, green-guilt world that we live in today, where everything must be eco-friendly and reusable and everything else, more and more men are turning to the way their fathers and grandfathers shaved, and are moving back to using a straight-razor to shave with. Some like the challenge, the skill and the patience that it takes. Some reckon that every whisker shaved off their chin grows three on their chest. Others like the nostalgia of it. Some people do it because they reckon they can save money.

On that last score, however, some would begin to wonder. A brand-new strop, razor, mug, brush and soap can cost over $200-$300!

Suddenly it’s not looking so cheap and money-saving. And this is when most men, turned on by the idea of a good, old-fashioned shave, turn away, and go back to using their vibrating Mach 5.

This is a little guide about how to get all the things you need, on the cheap.

Buying a Second-Hand Straight Razor

Straight-razors come in a dizzying array of styles and types, and it can be tricky to know exactly what kind of razor you should buy. Keep the following things in mind when looking for a second-hand straight-razor:

Always pick quality. Buy a razor that was made by a reputable company, or from a reputable country or city. In England, the best straight-razors all came from Sheffield, and for centuries, Sheffield was the center of the English cutlery trade. Anything that cut anything, came from Sheffield. Kitchen-knives, tailors’ shears, the finest silverware, and the best, barber-quality straight-razors were all made here.

While any razor from Sheffield is almost certainly a winner, keep an eye out for the name Joseph Rodgers & Sons. For well over two hundred years, J. Rodgers & Sons has produced quality cutlery, since it was founded in 1764! Everything from paper-knives to silverware and straight-razors. You can date a J. Rodgers knife by examining what is engraved on the shank of the blade.

A Victorian-era Rodgers blade will have “Cutlers to Her Majesty” (Queen Victoria). A razor made after 1901, will have “Cutlers to Their Majesties”, (King Edward & Queen Alexandra, George V).

Other respected Sheffield razor-manufacturers were Bengall, and Wade & Butcher. Keep an eye out for them, as well. But in general, any Sheffield-made razor will be of assured quality.

Any razor marked “Thiers“, will have been made in the French town of Thiers, and is another sign of quality. The company of Thiers-Issard still makes straight-razors to this day.

One of the most recognised names in cutlery is that of “Solingen“. A town in Germany, Solingen is arguably the cutlery capital of the Western world. Everything from razors to kitchen-knives and scissors of all kinds are produced in Solingen. Even surgical blades are made there. Almost without exception, any razor made in Solingen will be a winner. The German company of Dovo still makes razors there to this day.

Check for Defects in the Razor. This goes without saying, but bears mentioning. Keep an eye out for such things as cracks, chips, uneven wear (from improper or overenthusiastic sharpening), water-spots, pitting and rusting. Light rust may be removed with fine-grit sandpaper and light steel wool. The razor will then be serviceable again after sharpening and stropping. Heavy rusting, cracks, chips and uneven metal-wear are all irreversible damage to a razor, and cannot be fixed. Discard any finds in such a condition.

Some razors have cracked or damaged scales (the handle part which the blade folds into). There are repairmen out there who craft and replace broken scales with new ones. So all is not lost on this front. You could even do it yourself. All you need are the pins (the little rivets), and the right materials and skills. Razor-pin sets may be purchased online. Try eBay.

Tarnishing, water-spotting and pitting are generally cosmetic issues, and should not affect a razor’s ability to function. Light rusting, once removed, will not affect a razor’s overall quality of function. As mentioned previously, heavy rusting cannot be safely removed, and it can seriously weaken a razor. Do not attempt to resurrect a razor with extensive rust-damage. It’s not worth your while.

Features of a Razor. Not all razors have all of these features. Some might have all. Some might have some. Some might have none at all. It’s all up to you, to decide what you want in the razor that you buy.

Some razors will have ‘jimps’. Jimps are the corrugations ground into the shank of the razor-blade (the part of the blade you’ll hold in your fingers). They are there to provide you with extra grip during shaving. Some razors don’t have them at all. Some have single jimps (corrugations on the bottom side of the shank), and some have double jimps (corrugations on the upper and lower sides of the shank).

Some razors have ‘transverse stablisers’. These are found at the end of the razor-blade (opposite to the point), next to the shank. They’re sets of slots or grooves, which were punched into the razor-blade when it was being formed. They serve to provide strength to the blade, and prevent cracking from blade-warp and metal-fatigue. Like jimps, not all razors have them. Some razors only have one pair of stablisers. Others might have two.

Most razors will have a ‘shoulder‘. The ‘shoulder’ is the definitive ‘break-off’ point between the end of the blade, and the shank, which you hold in your fingers. It serves as a barrier to stop your wet fingers sliding onto the blade (and getting cut!). The shoulder meets the shank at right-angles, to provide a safe ‘slot’ to place your fingers in, to stop them getting in contact with the blade. This is also where you’ll find the stabilisers.

Make a note of what the Scales are made of. The vast majority of vintage razors will have scales made of some variety of plastic; usually celluloid. Be warned that celluloid can degrade over time. This is rare, but it can happen. So keep an eye out for any razors with warped, cracked or otherwise damaged scales. You can buy the razor for the blade, and have it re-scaled, or you can disregard it altogether.

Straight-razors with pretty ivory scales are iconic. But also rare and expensive. Most white/cream-scaled razors will be made out of “French Ivory”…a fancy term for celluloid plastic which is coloured to look like ivory. Don’t be fooled. An easy way to tell the difference is to just feel the scales with your fingers. Ivory, especially old ivory, is never perfectly smooth, and should have a grainy touch. It’s a natural product, after all. Plastic will almost always be perfectly smooth.

How Much do I Pay for a Straight Razor? Most vintage straight-razors can be bought for peanuts. In most cases, below $25.00, in good condition. Some razors which are a bit more interesting/rare etc, might cost more. But a good, serviceable, second-hand razor, which will work wonderfully after a light refurbishment, should not cost the earth. One of my razors was just five bucks, made in Germany. Never fails to give an excellent shave. The more expensive razors are typically the ones with fancy scales, the ones made of ivory, tortoise-shell, bone, etc.

Care & Maintenance of your Vintage Razor. So. You’ve bought a nice, vintage razor. It’s nothing fancy, but it was cheap, good quality, and will get the job done. Now what?

Apart from the obvious – keep the razor sharp and the edge smooth – especially with vintage razors, it’s important to keep the blade DRY BETWEEN USES. After each shave, dry the blade COMPLETELY with a towel, and make sure that there’s no water trapped inside the scales. Vintage razors were made of carbon steel. There’s nothing wrong with that, apart from the fact that carbon steel rusts. Very easily. A few drops of water left on a razor overnight, is enough to start rust going. Also, it can lead to water-spots, unsightly corrosion left by water-droplets on the blade. So to prevent that, dry the razor thoroughly after each use.

Buying Secondhand Accessories

Now that you have your razor, from the local flea-market, antiques shop or off of eBay, let’s have a look at buying other things second-hand.

The Strop

Every good razor needs a good strop. And a good strop need not cost the earth. I bought a top-quality strop for about $25.00 at the flea-market. So, what should you look for?

There are a whole heap of shortcuts around this. You can make a strop out of an old belt, out of a pair of jeans. Even out of newspaper. And they’ll all work. So if you’re trying to save a lot of money, you could try that. An old belt will have to be smooth and without patterns or embossing. A strop made out of the legs of an old pair of jeans will have to be free of seams and stitching; this would interrupt the draw of the blade, and damage the edge of the razor. A strop made of newspaper (I’m not kidding. Yes, newspaper), will need to be thick, and strong, to stop it from ripping when you pull on it, in preparation for stropping.

Every time you strop, you remove a small amount of leather from the strop. So if you’re using a belt, make sure it’s not a belt that you’re going to wear anytime soon…or at all.

In buying an actual second-hand strop, you should keep an eye out for the following:

The Condition of the Leather. Every good strop is made of leather. Sometimes, you’ll have double-sided strops, which are both leather and canvas. But sticking to leather for the time-being, ensure that it is smooth, and free of cuts, scratches and cracking (from being overly dry). Some leather can be softened using additives which you can buy at your local hardware shop. That’s fine, and should not damage the strop or the leather (it better not!). But steer clear of any strop which has serious cracks and/or cuts in the main part of the strop. These will do no good for your razor when you run it along there.

The Condition of the Connections. A typical hanging-strop has two ends (I think…). The handle, and the hook. The hook can be a simple…hook…a ring, claw-fastener, or a clip. This is used to affix the strop to the wall of your bathroom (on a towel-hook/ring, or towel-rail). At the other end, is the handle which you pull tight while stropping. Make sure that any stitching or rivets which hold these connections to the strop, are in good condition. The last thing you want is for the stitching to rip, or for the rivets to break during stropping. You’ve got three inches of lethally sharp steel in your hand and you don’t want to chance cutting yourself in an accident if the strop breaks.

The Size of the Strop. You want a strop of a decent size. At least three inches wide, and at least a foot long, if not more. If you don’t, then you won’t be able to strop the entire length of the razor-blade when it comes to using the strop.

The Brush

To use a straight-razor, you need to wet-shave. And to wet-shave, you need a brush. A badger-hair brush is best. It holds water and retains heat. And that’s what you want.

You can buy brushes second-hand, although if you do, any purchase should be THOROUGHLY cleaned first, with hot water and soap. Or you could buy a modern brush instead, if you’re a little worried about contamination. A quality badger-hair brush, purchased brand-new, might cost a bit more, but properly maintained, it will last a lifetime.

N.B.: A brand-new badger-hair brush *may* smell a bit wonky when you first open it. That’s because well…it is animal hair. You can clean it up a bit using shampoo, to remove the smell. Or you could leave it as it is…regular use and contact with shaving soap/cream will remove the smell in time.

The Stone

Every straight-razor user needs to have a decent sharpening-stone. There are people who go crazy with this stuff, and buy pastes and solutions and three, four, five or six different stones, to get their razors sharp enough to cut glass. But enough of that. This posting is about how to get started in straight-razors on a budget. So, what you want is one good razor stone which you can use easily, and which gives reliable, consistent results.

If you want to really cheap it out, you can just use a regular, rectangular knife-stone, such as what you might sharpen your kitchen-knives on. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are specific stones which are made just for straight-razors. Most of them are vintage/antique stones, since not many people use straight-razors anymore. You can find them at flea-markets and antiques shops and, provided they’re not cracked really badly, or worn out, they should work just fine. Razor-stones are generally a lot smaller than a regular knife-stone, for the simple fact that…razors are smaller! Always remember to keep the stone wet with water while sharpening, to reduce friction and heat, and to keep the sharpening process smooth.

Mugs, etc 

The cheapest solution for something like this is to just take a cereal-bowl, or an old coffee-mug that you don’t want to use anymore, and use it as a lathering-bowl or cup for when you want to whip up lather for your shave, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But some people find it tricky to use a bowl with no handle on it (which can be important when your hands are wet with soap and hot water), and shavers who own big bushy shaving-brushes can’t always fit them inside a regular coffee-mug.

To get you out of this mess, you might want to invest in a shaving-mug or bowl, or a shaving-scuttle. Scuttles (little jug-shaped affairs with a soap-dish on top) can be found in almost any decent flea-market or antiques shop. Unless it’s something really fancy, though, I wouldn’t pay any more than about $20-$30.00 for one.

When you buy a mug or a scuttle, make sure that the base of it is smooth and level. This is so that it won’t shake, slide or rattle on your bathroom counter while you mix up your lather. Not only is it really annoying, but it can throw off your mixing arm, because the mug, bowl or scuttle is always sliding around everywhere.

Tips, Tricks, etc. 

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when buying or using second-hand shaving equipment. A few parting words:

– The majority of vintage razors, even the ones from quality companies, are rarely worth a great deal of money. Most of their value comes either from their uniqueness, rarity and/or scale-materials. Unless there’s something that really draws you towards a razor (it’s a cased pair, or it’s a seven-day set, it’s really pretty, it’s really old, or any other reasons), don’t pay more than about $20.00. It’s not worth more than that.

– Assume that any second-hand razor will require thorough cleaning before use. You don’t know where it’s been or what it’s been used for, or what it’s had on its blade. They weren’t nicknamed ‘cut-throats‘ for nothing. Same goes for any brushes that you should purchase second-hand.

– This bears repeating…again: After each use, dry your razor-blade thoroughly. Especially with older razors, rust can start on a wet blade literally overnight. And if it gets really bad, you’ll have no choice but to throw the razor out.

– Light rusting can be removed with fine-grit sandpaper, and this will not affect the operation of the blade. Heavy rusting compromises the structural integrity of the blade. So throw it out. You don’t want a razor-blade cracking or breaking in half (and yes, that can happen in extreme circumstances) during stropping or shaving. Especially with extra-hollow-ground blades, which are very thin and bendy.

– Until you’ve learnt from experience how much is enough, always sharpen and strop your razor more than you think is necessary, just in case. In general, fifty strokes on the hone, and fifty on the strop, should be enough. It may sound like a lot, but once you’re up to speed, you’ll have it done in about five minutes.

One of the chief causes of razor-burn and cuts is shaving with a dull, unsharpened/unstropped razor. A properly sharpened and stropped razor, used correctly, will not cut you or cause razor-burn.


The “Idiot Box” and the History of Television

The television, the T.V., the idiot-box, the electronic babysitter. That magical screen in our living-rooms which has brought us news, sports, weather, education, entertainment, excitement, bemusement and rage, has come a long way since its inception nearly 100 years ago.

This posting will have a look at the history of television, from its beginnings to the commencement of regular programming.

The Television and Us

For most of us in the 21st century, life without television is inconceivable. There are those of course, who were born without it, but with it or without it, chances are, if you watch it regularly today, you would be hard-pressed to imagine your current and future existence without this magical device in your living-room. How many incredible events have been brought to us through the television? How many amazing films have we seen? Famous and memorable TV serials, and even advertisements. Everything from “Happy Days” to “Brylcreem” (just remember, only use a LITTLE dab), to “Are You Being Served?”

Mankind’s love-affair with the TV is inseparable, unstoppable and unthinkable that it should ever go away. But where does TV come from?

A World Before Television

In a dark and soul-less time, before computers and fax-machines and mobile telephones, when eggs were 5c a dozen and penny-candy was really a penny, mankind tuned into the radio.

From the early 1920s, until the late 1950s, we enjoyed a roughly 30-year period where radio was king. When we literally had to tune in and warm up, to enjoy a program over the air. This was the Golden Age of Radio. It brought us such memorable events as the Hindenburg Crash of 1937, the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Declaration of War in 1939 and countless famous old-time radio programs, from “Gang Busters” to “Dragnet”, to “Richard Diamond” and “Abbott & Costello”.

If you want to read more about that, have a look here.

Back then, the family radio-set was an important piece of household equipment. But even by the 1930s, its dominance in our living-rooms was being threatened by a new kid on the block called television.

The Invention of Television

The word ‘television’ comes from the Greek ‘tele’ meaning ‘from afar’. Just like how telephone, and telegraph mean sounds, and writing, or messages, from afar, television means pictures from afar.

So, who invented television?

As with many great inventions, from airplanes to motor-cars, telephones, the fountain pen and the typewriter, television cannot be wholly attributed to one man.

Experiments in transmitting images over a distance have dated back as far as the late 1800s, however, television as we would recognise it today, that is, moving images transmitted to a screen, did not emerge until the mid-1920s. The man responsible for its creation was Mr. John Logie Baird, a Scotsman (1888-1946). To this day, the Australian TV industry still holds the “Logie Awards” every year in his honour.

Mr. Baird was experimenting with transmitting images over the air for a long time, starting in the early 1920s. However, it was not until the early 1930s that the first TV sets that we might know today, ever appeared in shop windows.

Early Television

Named after its inventor, this is the Baird Televisor, ca. 1933, one of the first ever residential TV sets! It’s hardly widescreen, but it is a television.

Back in the 20s and 30s, radio was the dominant force for entertainment, education and news, and T.V. programming was often limited to a few hours, or even a few minutes a day, and nothing more than black and white film with no sound, or sound, with no pictures! T.V. during the interwar period was little more than a fairground attraction, or a toy for the rich.

By the second half of the 1930s, TV started becoming more accessible, and more advanced, although it still had a limited market. Picture-quality was not what it might be, but now, TV sets had sound! Sets were still expensive, but those who could afford them, bought them from famous department-stores like Selfridges in London. In the United States, T.V. broadcasting started in the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American president to appear on television, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.


That’s right! Nazi-Vision!

Believe it or not, but it was the Nazis who created one of the world’s first national television networks. German factories started producing early TV sets in 1934, and the Nazis were among the very first people on earth to realise the potential for television to reach several audiences at once, and spread the glorious Nazi ideologies of Strength through Joy, racial purity and an abundance of bratwurst for all!

Based in the German capital of Berlin, the Nazi-controlled broadcasting station and studio produced everything from propaganda movies, to Nazi rallies, speeches and other material, which was transmitted to the screens of loyal Germans fortunate enough to own the first generation of home television-sets. While most of the programming was broadcast live, and was not recorded, some 250-odd reels of ancient film remains, which gives us a tantalizing look at television under the Nazis, from 1935-1944.

Although the Nazis could see that TV could be a great technology for spreading their ideologies and propaganda, they also realised that the technology would have to be greatly improved before it would work properly. The limitations of early cameras meant that picture-quality was mediocre at best. Their solution was to record their broadcasts onto film, and play it back later, like they did with any other movie. This not only improved quality, but it also had the unintended side-effect of giving us a record of Nazi television that has survived to this day.

Despite the Nazis grand vision, the relative expensiveness of television sets meant that the audience for their programming was always rather small. Few people owned sets. Those who did were usually party-members with the money to spend, people in positions of power, money or authority, and a chosen lucky few private citizens. The rest of the sets were set up in public “Television Parlors”, scattered around Berlin. They were little more than simple movie-theaters, where the big screen had been replaced by the small one.

Another opportunity for the Nazis came in 1936. That’s right, the Berlin Olympics of 1936, where Jesse Owens beat the Aryans and humiliated Hitler, were the first Olympics to be publicly televised!

However, the fact remained that, despite the Nazis best efforts, early television remained impractical on a large scale. They had improved some things, such as picture-quality and sound, but a limited audience meant that until the medium was more widely adopted and accepted, and better recording, broadcasting, and receiving means had been devised, TV would be little more than a toy. Indeed, even by the outbreak of the Second World War, the entire nation of Germany had only about 500 television sets, scattered around the country.

Television and the War

By the early 1940s, some semblance of regular TV broadcasts had begun. In 1941, CBS in the United States was broadcasting televised news in 15-minute bulletins, twice a day. Regular programming began to introduce the TV shows that we would recognise today, although the limitations of the studio-cameras and lights of the period left much to be desired when it came to picture-quality. The war itself played a big role in holding back the development of TV. Rationing and shortages of almost everything needed to make TV sets, from wood to metal to glass, made them expensive luxury-items. And at any rate, the companies that made TV. sets were more interested in making radios and other electronics for the war effort.

These shortcomings and interruptions severely affected the widespread use of televisions, and it wasn’t until after the war, in 1947, that regular T.V. broadcasting really took off in the United States.

In Germany, where television was being exploited for propaganda purposes, advances in technology had been made, but even then, programming was brief. Usually only a few hours a day, if at all. By autumn of 1944, with constant, heavy bombing-raids on German cities, and the war going badly for the Nazis, the national broadcasting company in Germany ceased transmissions.

Please Check your Local Paper for the Times

The war is over! Yay!

In the late 1940s, TV programming really started taking off. With the war over, more technology and research could be profitably spent developing and improving the emerging medium of television. For the growing number of television-owners, there were now more frequent telecasts and a greater variety of options, everything from news programs, sitcoms, and early kids’ shows like the famous “Howdy Doody” program, starting in 1947!

There was stiff competition from radio during this time, but one by one, popular radio programs of the 1930s and 40s slowly shifted from the old, to the new, setting up regular TV spots for themselves on the weekly schedule. For a while, some actors and performers ran concurrent TV and radio programs; “Dragnet” used to do it for nearly a whole decade!

By the early 1950s, TV was becoming more and more accepted, and popular shows such as “Amos & Andy” (1951) and the Jack Benny Program (1950), were big hits on TV. Radio-writers and musicians who found themselves suddenly unemployed, began scriptwriting for these newfangled television-series, and writing and recording music for TV shows.

The Shape of the Box

Early televisions of the 1930s and 40s closely followed the styles of furniture and radios of the period. A typical 1930s radio-set was large, with a handsome wood case, cloth-covered speakers and handsome bakelite knobs. Television sets were made in the same style. Here’s an RCA 360, from 1947, one of the first postwar televisions to be mass-produced and available to the public:

By the 1950s, as with many other things, from typewriters to radios to kitchen gadgets, sleeker lines, newer materials and different colour-palettes were the rage. Boxy old wood-case televisions were out. More simplistic and uncluttered looks were in…

In the 50s, televisions were the latest and greatest thing around. Some people who couldn’t actually afford a set, would just buy an aerial and stick it on their rooves, just to pretend that they did, so that they could keep up with the Joneses.

Remote Television

Almost as soon as TV started taking off, people started looking for ways to make the technology more appealing to the everyday user. Why should you have to get up and flip a dial and knob whenever you wanted to change the channel? That arduous, six, seven, or nine-foot trek to the set, and back again, is such an inconvenience! Surely there’s a better way?

I See the Light!

As early as 1950, the first TV remote-controls had been invented. Originally connected to the set itself by long cables, the first wireless TV-remotes, of the kind we recognise today, came out in the mid 1950s. One of the first wireless remotes was the Flashmatic, from 1955. It worked quite simply: You pressed the buttons on the controller and aimed it at the television. A beam of light from the remote hit a photoelectric panel on the TV set, which changed the channel.

Brilliant, but problematic. See, the light-sensitive electric cell on the television-set did not differentiate between the beam shot from the remote, and any other source of light. If you turned on an electric lamp near to the television, or even if you opened the curtains and let in the sunlight, the channel would change automatically, even without the remote!

A Click and a Switch!

Early TV remotes worked on light-beams affecting light-sensitive electric panels on the television set. They worked well enough, so long as you had a decent aim and there weren’t any interfering light-sources, but the drawbacks of their over-sensitivity and fiddly operation made them somewhat impractical. A better type of TV remote was invented shortly after, which relied not on light, but on sound. Pressing the remote-buttons let off clicks of different frequencies, which could be picked up by the TV-set. Each frequency related to a specific command – changing the channel, or the volume, as the case may have been. But even this could be problematic, when people with sensitive hearing could hear the pulses of sound (which were designed to be outside the human hearing-range).

Slice and Dice!

Don’tcha just hate it that, just when the show gets to the interesting bit, it suddenly breaks for a commercial?

You can thank TV remotes for that.

After the invention of the remote, it was discovered by studio bigwigs that airing commercials between shows was ineffective. Once a show was over, you could just turn the set off, or flip to another channel. And you didn’t have to watch the stupid commercial for Remington typewriters, or Brylcreem, or Pepsodent, or whatever other boring junk those commercial schmucks were trying to peddle in your own living room! How dare they invade your privacy like this!?

To remedy this, the modern format of television was created, where shows were split into segments or acts, just like a play at the theater. This allowed for advertising, but it also meant that people were less likely to flip away from the channel, in case they missed the return of their favourite TV episode, thereby increasing the viewer-numbers of TV commercials.

Crafty bastards…

The Golden Age of Television

The Golden Age of Television is defined as the period from the early 1950s up to the 1970s. It was during this period that many of the classic and famous TV shows that we know and love and remember, were broadcast. But more importantly, it was during this time (especially in the 50s and 60s), that TV gained dominance over radio for the first time in history. Also, it was during the 50s and 60s that TV developed its own style, format and language.

Previously, TV shows were modeled after radio-programs, but not everything used in radio was possible on television, which necessitated various changes, which led to the evolution of modern television. Shows produced on TV during and after this changeover, are considered classics of television.

What shows, you might ask? Well, how about Dragnet? The Jack Benny Show? Amos & Andy? Leave It To Beaver? Life with Luigi, and numerous other programs.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Along with regular programming, the television revolutionized the broadcasting of news. Previously, you had the radio and the newspaper. But now, the nightly, six o’clock bulletin was the mainstay of news, sports and weather. The news anchor and reporters became staples of nightly broadcasts. Programs like the 1950s “See it Now“, began to replace radio broadcasts as the method for spreading news to the public. The line “Good night, and good luck”, was the sign-off line used by famous reporter Edward R. Murrow, notable for reporting on the Blitz in London, and MacCarthyism during the 1950s.

We Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Program…

By the 60s and 70s, TV had become the mainstay of most well-to-do households in the developed world, and had finally replaced radio as the main medium for electronic entertainment, music and news. It had by now, reached the format which we’re most familiar with.

The 60s and 70s saw many of the most famous TV shows in history take to the air, like Gilligan’s Island, the Addams Family, Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Dragnet (which transferred from radio in the 1950s), and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

It was in the early 1970s that the first TV-recording equipment arrived on the scene. These days, we have DVD recorders and other technology that will allow us to pause, rewind, record and watch multiple shows at once. But we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if the VCR and the video-cassette didn’t get there first. Entering the market in 1971, the VHS tape and the VCR remained the standard method for recording TV-programs for thirty years, until the end of the 20th century. Tricks like putting sticky-tape over the slots in the tape-cassette to disable the anti-recording feature on some cassettes, would enable people to use almost any cassette to record movies, TV shows and almost anything else that they wanted, right off their TV sets. VCDs, and eventually, DVDs, and their accompanying recorders, would of course replace them starting in the late 1990s, but VHS tapes paved the way.

That brings us more or less to the modern day, so far as TVs are concerned. Some things have changed, such as digital TVs from old cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs, and the lack of a need for a pair of rabbit-ear antennae, but in the past few years, not much else has changed about the basics of television as we know it today.

Want to Know More?

“Television under the Swastika – The History of Nazi Television”

A History of Television from the Grolier Encyclopedia