Treasures: Koken barber chairs admired by collectors
Dear Helaine and Joe:
Can you tell me the approximate value of my husband's barber chair? It was manufactured by the Koken Barber's Supply Co. of St. Louis. There is also a brass plaque on the back that reads "Jones Bros. Co. Barber's Supply. Toronto, Canada." Any information would be appreciated.
-- S.M., Canton, Mich.
Barbers' chairs and other supplies associated with the profession are out of our normal range of experience, but we decided to do a little research and see what we could find.
As with all subjects, you cannot believe everything you read on the Internet. The initial article we pulled up said that Ernest Koken "developed the first barber chair" (way wrong, right from the beginning) and that he did this in 1906 –– again, incorrect. Koken was, indeed, responsible for many innovations in the standard barber chair, but he did not invent it, and he began his work with this device in the 1870s.
Koken was a German immigrant who began his business life at age 19 in St. Louis by producing and distributing hand-painted shaving mugs. At the time, customers went to a barbershop for a shave and would leave a personal shaving mug with the barber –– probably for sanitary reasons.
These mugs were customarily displayed on the wall behind the barber chairs and often had the name of the owner and sometimes a picture that suggested his profession. A train engineer's mug, for example, might have an image of a locomotive, while a beekeeper's might have a man and his beehives.
Barber chairs needed to swivel, their backs needed to recline so a client's hair could be washed and the height needed to be adjustable according to the height of the barber. Koken reportedly started manufacturing barbers' chairs in the 1880s, and it is said that his chairs were the first to come with attached footrests and headrests.
But Koken's major contribution to the chair was a hydraulic lifting mechanism that allowed the chair to be adjusted with a foot pedal while the customer was sitting in the chair. It was patented in 1892.
Koken is also credited with inventing the "joystick" slide lever that allowed the barber to control all the chair's mechanical functions. Koken barber chairs are known for their quality construction and fine upholstery that used plush fabrics and leather. Collectors are particularly fond of the Koken "Congress" model chairs that have round backs and seats and elaborate metalwork.
The chair in today's question is a real beauty. The company, which is still in business today as a subsidiary of the Japanese firm Takara Belmont, suggests in a letter to S.M. that the chair is circa 1901. This particular one was made from quarter-sawn oak, which was popular at that time, but it was also available in mahogany.
We think this chair may have been distributed by Jones Bros. Barber's Supplies in Toronto, but this company does appear to have made barber and dental chairs using Koken hardware (this may or may not be correct; information is sketchy). As for the value, we feel this chair should be insured for between $5,000 and $7,000.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at email@example.com.