“We don’t carry any sissy stuff here. It’s either Seaforth! or Old Spice and we’re out of Old Spice. Today the real men are shaving with Seaforth!”1950’s barbershop conversation
A customer of mine shared an experience he had at a barbershop in the 1950s. He was sitting in the barber chair when a young man asked the barber to use a new shaving cream. The barber scoffed and said that he doesn’t carry any “sissy stuff”, but if the young man provided the cream the barber would lather it for him. The young man declined and the barber said “It’s either Seaforth! or Old Spice and we’re out of Old Spice. Today the real men are shaving with Seaforth!”
Until recently the reference to Seaforth! would have been lost on me. I hadn’t heard of the brand and I certainly didn’t realize it was a men’s grooming staple from 1939 until the late 60s. Little did I know this forgotten brand would capture my imagination and lead to our own line of Seaforth! shaving products.
In the mid 1930s a successful traveling salesman named Alfred McKelvy began work on a new line of shaving soap and aftershave. He was new to the men’s grooming industry but past success in sales gave him the confidence to launch this new venture.
By 1939 his project was ready to launch. He named the products Seaforth! after a military regiment known as the Seaforth Highlanders. A year earlier Old Spice started making waves in department stores and barbershops. When McKelvy hit the road with his distinctive branding department stores were eager to add it to their offering.
Seaforth! achieved immediate success and became a common men’s gift for the holidays. The United States’ entry into the war catapulted the success of Seaforth! as families sent gifts to the soldiers. The face of Seaforth! was a kilted Scottish Highlander who could be found in every print magazine in the 40s and 50s.
Despite decades of success, Seaforth’s popularity declined in the 1960s. The company was sold and McKelvy had moved onto other ventures. Men’s tastes had changed and the market for shaving products became increasingly crowded. Despite new products designed to revive the brand Seaforth! went defunct by the 1980s. A quick search on ebay for “Seaforth Shaving Mug” shows how popular and pervasive this brand was in its day.
Discovery by Accident
After my grandfather passed away I realized I knew very little of his life story. I knew he was a star football player who became a Captain in the Army during WWII (3rd Armored “Spearhead Division). After the war he opened an appliance store in a small town. The final bit of information was an obscure one – he shaved every day of his adult life. Wet shaving happened to be a hobby of mine.
I was doing genealogical research and found a trove of information – yearbooks, military after-action reports, and advertisements from his store. I pictured him walking the three blocks from his house to his appliance store and stopping into the barber shop for a cut and shave. It made me wonder what products the barber would have been using. Google confirmed my suspicions – Old Spice and Clubman for sure. But a third option was new to me – Seaforth!
The unique whiskey-jug shaped bottle was captivating, from the style of the font to the kilted highlander marching forward. It was a complete mélange of 1940’s branding tropes wrapped up in one small package. I was hooked.
I ordered a vintage bottle of Seaforth! off ebay and lamented the fact that this brand had been lost to history. I wondered if the brand could be brought back to life. I had very little experience making soap, but like Alfred McKelvy 8 decades before me, I decided to go out on a limb.
Seaforth! Soap Development
The market for Artisan Shaving Soap has no shortage of rockstar soaps, and as a hobbyist I use all of them. Artisans like Declaration Grooming, Noble Otter, Zingari Man, Mammoth & Stirling all set a very high bar in their own unique way. There is no “best shaving soap in 2020” – rather a sea of outstanding options to choose from.
I knew that developing a noteworthy soap would be difficult and time-consuming. My biggest fear was slapping a Seaforth label on an inferior product and watching the brand get lost to history for a second time. So I decided to take a different approach. I tested 12 different soap formulations on myself until I felt confident enough to ask others for feedback. To get this feedback I launched an “Experimenal” line of soaps.
Experimental soaps were very small batches (6-20 soaps) all with modifications to the formula and different scents. I sold these soaps around my cost with the goal of collecting feedback and improving the soap formula. The approach worked and after around 25 versions I settled on a soap base with great latherability, outstanding slickness, and a very nice post-shave feel.
Scent of Seaforth!
Developing the soap was challenging, but nothing compared to developing the scent. Store-bought preblend fragrance oils are easy to come by but not very inspiring. Cloning the original would have been relatively easy through gas chromatography. But my vision for Seaforth! was different.
One Christmas when I was a kid my dad gave me a VHS tape of his favorite childhood movie. He wanted me to have the same enjoyment/experience he remembered from his childhood. But I didn’t like the movie much. My prism for what was “good” was totally different in 1990 than my dad’s was in 1960. Through my lens it had grainy video, cheesy dialogue, and a painfully slow pace.
I feared the same experience for a revived Seaforth! Its almost impossible for someone to have the same experience with scent as their grandfather did 70 years ago because the prism has changed. Our expectations for “good” are different and our surroundings are different (no more smoke filled rooms competing with our aftershave). My goal was to capture the enjoyment/experience of the scent rather than the scent itself.
To achieve this I wanted to reimagine the scent through the lens of a modern person. The goal was to retain the structure and some notes of the originals, but to breathe fresh life into it using updated versions of the key notes.
I knew I could not achieve this on my own so to bring Seaforth! to life I commissioned the help of Shawn Maher from Chatillon Lux and Maher Olfactive. Shawn is a well-known artisan perfumer and he is very familiar with the wet shaving market.
Spearhead Shaving was well-known for our razor cases, but we were a relative non-entity in the shaving soap market. I feared that approaching a well-respected perfumer with a pitch to develop scents would fall on deaf ears without a clear vision. So I poured every detail I could muster into a fragrance brief for the first two scents – Heather and Spiced. I included everything from the emotions I wanted the scents to evoke to details about packaging, distribution and future plans for the product line.
To my delight Shawn immediately grasped the vision for Seaforth! Developing the scents themselves is a separate topic, and Shawn would have to write that one himself. But the resulting scents were phenomenal. They captured the soul of the original with a new body to make them approachable and accessible in 2020.
After nearly a year in development Seaforth! launched on October 1, 2020. Our line includes shaving soap and alcohol-free aftershave in two distinct scents: Heather and Spiced. All of our products are made by hand in very small batches – typically 50 soaps and 30 aftershaves at a time. We apply every label by hand and fulfill orders on nights and weekends. The whole process is time-consuming but this is a passion project that is near and dear to us.
Seaforth! Heather is a classic fougère structure, but instead of a dated, oakmoss-heavy fougère, it leans to the light and soapy side. It has a crisp green note of clary sage in place of the weighty, damp green oakmoss, fortified with a big dose of French and Bulgarian lavender and sunny bergamot citrus. Along with geranium, a classically crisp, fruity-green note, Heather is an invigorating, refreshingly classic scent without feeling dated.
Seaforth! Spiced is a classic and familiar scent structure, but with fresh life breathed into it. The opening feels new by using a more modern mandarin citrus and different aldehydes. Meanwhile, the base underneath is familiar, with warm spices, creamy sweetness and a classic finish. Spiced is a new and inviting take on the classic spice scents of the mid-20th century.
We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to both Heather and Spiced, and at times it has been a challenge to keep up. This product started as a curious bit of nostalgia and has grown into a line of luxury shaving soaps that we are proud to call our own. We are excited for what the future holds for Seaforth! and Spearhead Shaving Company.
Seaforth! is available at SpearheadShaving.com and through fine wet shaving retailers.