Napoleon III's Razor

Richard Bell's Wild West Yorkshire Nature Diary, Saturday, 7 August 2010, page 2 of 2

razor design

envelopeeagleKINGS, PRINCES, maharajahs and African chiefs have visited Joseph Rodgers, Cutlers, at their Norfolk Street showrooms and works (see previous page), as did General Grant.

The address on the envelope (left), was all that was needed to find them:

Messrs Rodgers & Co

What a shame the stamp is now missing; I guess that it was a penny black or a penny red.

Napoleon IIIMy great-great granddad, Samuel Bergin Swift, worked for the firm, as did his father 'Billy' Swift before him. When Samuel was given the commission to design a cut-throat razor for Napoleon III (1808-1873), emperor of the French (1852-1870), he used the back of this small envelope to draw out his design. It might be a design for a set of three razors, or the top and bottom might be two sides of the same razor.

I like to think that my urge to do some kind of artistic work comes from this line of my family tree, via my mother.

Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, is shown in this detail from a painting by Wilhelm Camphausen (1818–1885) after his defeat by Bismark at the Battle of Sedan in 1870 (image from Wikimedia Commons).

He spent the final years of his life in exile in England. Would that be when this razor was commissioned? It's so splendid that you'd think it more likely that it was presented to him when he was at the height of his imperial powers.

The crown, eagle and 'N' on the design are noticeably different in style from the pen and ink drawings. I think Samuel has printed these from templates (see below) used in the manufacture of the razor, so this must be a full scale drawing.

notes from the envelope

tobacco tinknifeI've enhanced the contrast so that you can read some of his notes, which call for 'Pearl Carved, Gold wire in the centre' and 'carved flowers'. It was evidently going to be a suitably splendid razor for the emperor's trademark goatee beard and extravagant moustache.

For many years this envelope was kept, folded up, in a tobacco tin with some bits and pieces of knives and scissors including a small steel template of the letter 'N'. I think that it's very likely that the template was used in the making of the razor, which would suggest that it was actually made and presented to the emperor, so perhaps it still exists in a Napoleonic collection somewhere. If so, I'd love to see it!

initialsThe steel pen knife (below), also in the box, has Samuel's name; 'S B SWIFT' inscribed on the blade.

scissors, knife and razor

George Swifteye markAnother of the pen knives has an Egyptian eye symbol on the blade (left). The pen-knife (above, far right) was finished with tortoiseshell. Joseph Rodgers kept a warehouse full of elephant and walrus tusks, antlers and turtle shells to fashion into handles.

Samuel Bergin Swift had an oil on canvas portrait painted of his son George, which now hangs in my mum's living room. My sketch of it (right) is a little out of proportion and he's actually more of a toddler in the picture, so this is what he looked like aged 3 or 4, in 1843 or 1844. In the Victorian period, it was the fashion to dress toddlers this way - a velvet dress and silk stockings.

My mum actually met George; she was told that as a baby she was taken to her granddad's house. He took her hand and said: 'My life is just ending but this little life is just beginning.'

Beware Envelopes!

Finally, a warning if you've ever got a vital document of family history that you'd like to permanently archive.

Here's the problem: Which one of these A4 envelopes contains the little Victorian envelope with the sketch for Napoleon III's razor on it?

envelope 1envelope 2envelope 3

Answer: none of the above, but you see my point, there's no way of telling, and the sketch is so flimsy the envelope would appear to be empty.

In August 2006 my mum handed me Samuel's sketch in a similar manila envelope for me to scan for the family history album she has compiled. To cut a long story short, after a fraught summer, I scanned the document and handed it back in its plain brown wrapper to my mum on Sunday morning 25 September 2006. It hasn't been seen since.

The confusion came about because, as we sat chatting over a cup of coffee, I said that I'd like, when I had the time, to photograph it in a sidelight to bring out the lettering more clearly. At that moment my brother Bill appeared and Barbara and I left a bit later, leaving my mum with the distinct impression that I'd taken the document.

I'm equally convinced that I left it there, in its anonymous brown envelope sitting there on the sideboard. Hopefully it didn't get mixed up with the recycling so perhaps its got filed away somewhere but it certainly isn't with my mum's family history album. However things have turned up after disappearing for years, so I don't give up hope.


Luckily, to compile this web page, I was able to borrow the print I had made of the envelope from my mum's album (because of the enormous size of the high res. scan, I hadn't saved it as a file on my old computer).

'And don't lose it this time!' she said, 'Wait a moment!'envelope

She ran off and found a white A4 envelope from the recycling pile and insisted that I put the scan inside it.

So the last known paper copy of the design for the razor blades of Prince Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, president of the Second French Republic and emperor of the French now resides in this white window envelope. What could possibly go wrong?

Good news: as I've at last got these scans online and as the British Library regularly archives an up to date copy of this website, the sketch is now available to anyone with Internet access and should still be available to scholars in the future; that's if they happen to have a particular interest in Napoleon III's razor.