Force Behind the Throne

A St. Louis barber-chair maker weathered the Depression, succumbed to Japanese competitors and adapted to changing fashion

As a kid -- if you're of a certain age, that is -- you likely visited the local barbershop at least once a month for a haircut. Whether you got a razor cut (a styling notch above "the regular"), a flattop or just had your bangs trimmed, there was usually a kindly old gent on duty to hold your fidgeting head in place as he snipped and clipped and ran the electric shears along the nape of your neck, causing tingles along your spine, a distinctly pleasant if not hedonistic experience. The barber chair itself was a marvel of comfort and engineering: It was plush leather, and you eased into it as you might slip into a favorite pair of slippers. In that chair you felt like a potentate on a throne. If you were 14 and looked tough enough, you could even smoke during your haircut; the arms of the chair had little ashtrays.

The chair had the smooth moves of a carousel. With the help of two pedals at the rear of the base, the barber could raise or lower you as needed: "Going u-uu-uup," he might say, feeling antic that particular day. "First floor -- shoes, booze and nothing to lose." With the pull of a handle on the side, he could recline you to administer a shampoo or a shave. He could spin you round in that chair to gaze at your newly shorn pate in the big mirror, and you might say, "Looks swell, Dave," or, "Hey, you made the ears too low." And if you looked down at the foot plate, which swiveled to accommodate your particular size and posture, you would see the name of the manufacturer. Emil J. Paidar Co., it might say, or Theodore H. Kochs. But more often than not it would read "Koken-St. Louis."

Koken, you may have wondered -- what the heck kind of name is that?

When chief engineer and product designer Michihiro Hirayoshi is not designing new 
products, he is planning ways to make the manufacturing floor more efficient.
Jennifer Silverberg
When chief engineer and product designer Michihiro Hirayoshi is not designing new products, he is planning ways to make the manufacturing floor more efficient.

Of course, you could ask a tonsorial wizard like Earl E. Roach. Earl would tell you that among barber-chair brands, a Koken was the acme of craftsmanship, a symbol of elegance -- in short, something a barber could be damn proud to own. "The Koken chair was always the standard of the industry," says Roach, owner of Earl's International in Clayton and St. Louis' only inductee into the Barber Hall of Fame. "They had the classiest look, the highest quality, and they gave a solid guarantee. And that was a local company that did that."

The Koken chair, by its very ubiquity, has ensconced itself in American culture: Working miniatures have fetched more than $50,000 at auction, and at least one has been exhibited as an objet d'art. (That's the chair in which Albert Anastasia, feared hitman of Murder Inc., became the most ventilated barbershop patron one day in 1957.)

Oh yes, the Koken Manufacturing Co. still operates in St. Louis, with administrative offices and a 120,000-square-foot factory at 1631 Martin Luther King Dr. As ever, the workforce -- currently 87, including woodworkers, machine operators, designers and engineers -- produces stylish and durable chairs for the beauty and barber industry, though that is about all that remains constant.

In its 125-year history, the company has gone through more changes than Madonna has gone through hairstyles. The often-intrepid company has tried myriad different products, changed locations several times and opened adjunct factories and foundries, only to close them again. For most of the last century, it has gone through a succession of presidents almost as varied as certain banana republics'. A member of the Koken family has not been at the helm for more than 65 years. Indeed, the company is no longer American-owned. It is now a subsidiary of Japanese manufacturer Takara-Belmont, the world's largest producer of barber chairs and dentist chairs -- a turn that a young German immigrant named Ernest Koken could never have envisioned.

In 1874, Ernest Koken, then 19 and a St. Louis resident, started taking orders from local barbers for custom-decorated china shaving mugs, and the original Koken Barber Supply Co. was born. By the late 19th-century, American men wanted more than shaving mugs, much more. Barbers, too, needed tonsorial accoutrements. Koken took up a sideline, selling used chairs to barbers, a wholly modest start for what would follow.

Koken took a partner, Louis Boppert, who provided working capital and manufacturing expertise. They began to make tonsorial chairs, and in 1881 the company was awarded a patent on the first Koken chair that reclined for shaving. Chairs that revolved and reclined were patented in 1885 and 1888. The first hydraulic-lift chair, the pedaled variety, was patented in 1892.

The company, with offices at 909 Market St., grew. By horse and wagon, salesmen roamed the city and outlying areas, returning to the Koken stables at nightfall. What they did not manufacture, they bought and brokered. Boppert died in 1886, and when Ernest Koken died of heart failure in 1907, his son, Walter, eventually took the reins. One of Walter's great feats was in recruiting George Chisholm, a former president of a rival manufacturing concern with ties to the East Coast barber-supply trade. Chisholm arrived in 1920 and during the next decade delivered Koken its greatest prosperity.

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