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?

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.

Certainly it helped that American women began flocking to barbershops to have their hair "bobbed," as the short style was called. Barbers started adding extra chairs, and Koken's business increased to the point that assembly plants were established in New York City and Oakland, Calif. Meanwhile, Walter Koken, weary of paying up to $1,000 per day to the local Liberty Foundry for the manufacture of castings, decided to build his own facility in South St. Louis. The Koken Foundry, opened in 1926, could produce 100 barber chairs a day.

From 1922-1927, Koken was the leader in barber-chair production and sales in the U.S. The Koken catalog of 1926 is a gorgeous display of the regal chairs of postwar America. Across the country, in the finer hotels, men sat for grooming in Koken's flagship Congress Pedestal Hydraulic Chair ($65-$80), a beauty of quarter-sawn oak, upholstered with mohair and plush leather. In the days of shave-and-haircut-two-bits, this chair made one feel like a Carnegie or a Rockefeller. There were many variations on the same basic design: The Congress One-Lever Chair No.132, for example, had a cane seat and back. "The Chair for Cuba and the Philippines," read the caption.

For the next 40 years, the company would sail through changing trends, nearly foundering at times, jettisoning cargo and replacing captains when necessary. Timing was everything. Chisholm was criticized for failing to meet the demands of the emerging beauty industry. By the time the company devoted a sales force to peddling permanent-wave machines and hair dryers, the Great Depression hit and the orders dwindled. Chisholm resigned, and Walter Koken decided that the only course was to diversify. The company started making golf clubs with molded Bakelite heads. Refrigerators and commodes were enameled. Embalming tables were wrought; baseball bats were turned on Koken lathes.

Still, the company could not get back to flush, and in 1934 creditors asked Chisholm to rescue the company. He agreed, under the condition that Walter Koken be bought out. The scion left with just $3,000 and the trademark rights to a new hair dryer in the design stages. The company held on until World War II, when business boomed with orders for barber chairs to army camps and war-effort contracts for glider wings, tool chests and cartridge cases. After the war, Koken cashed in on the prosperity, introducing the barrel-style President and Premier series of chairs, becoming fixtures in the swankier barber shops of the country's hotels, train stations and airports.

Sterling Lee, octogenarian barber at the Happy Medium Styling Salon, commonly known as the Dogtown Barber Shop, recalls working in the mid-'50s in the basement of the old Statler Hotel (later the Gateway Hotel) downtown, where 10 barbers barbered behind a battery of 10 barrel-style President chairs. For his own barbershop near the brewery, Lee would later purchase two President chairs and a shoeshine stand from Koken. "They were very stylish and very modern," says Lee, an alum of the old Moler Barber College.

Koken was on top once more, paying out dividends for the first time in decades, when, in the early '60s, a pall fell over the scene. The Takara Co. of Osaka, Japan, entered the market with a highly styled, low-priced chair, trade-named the Belmont. The upstart Belmont gave the stodgy Koken a run for its money. Even loyal Koken dealers were switching over to the sleek, contoured Belmont, which was reminiscent of a dentist's chair (which is what Takara had been making all along).

To make matters worse, the hairstyles were changing. "In the '60s, the Beatles were fab and long hair was in," says John Rauckman, regional vice president of sales with Koken. "Back then, barbers wore white smocks and worked with clippers. They didn't know how to cut long hair, so guys started going to beauty salons, which changed their name to "unisex salon.'" Haircutting became hairstyling, and in this new, primping world the Koken chair was nearly obsolete.

"The old-type barber chair was not conducive to laying back for a shampoo," says Earl Roach. "You had to buy the shampoo tray separately, from Koken or someone else." In short, the gulf was becoming wider between the corner barbershop -- with its well-thumbed copies of Argosy and Popular Mechanics, a repair-garage calendar on the wall -- and the salon, all glass and chrome, where there are no customers, only clients, and the receptionist offers a glass of zinfandel while you thumb through Passion, checking out the latest coifs from New York and London.

What was a barber-supply company to do? Koken management and their American competitor, the Emil J. Paidar Co., joined in an appeal to the U.S. government to increase the import tariff on Belmont chairs. The court rudely told Koken that the company could damn well afford to update its plant and product lines to compete effectively against Takara. Instead, Koken sold out to its competitor in 1969. Under its new honcho, Eeson Inoue, Koken introduced the chic and tony Decorator line of beauty-salon furniture and Customod line of barber furniture. After a duration of healthy profits and several award-winning trade-show exhibits of salon furniture, Koken was recognized as an industry leader once more.

Nothing from the outside indicates just what sort of commerce goes on inside the Koken factory and showroom, just west of the convention center. There are no popular tours like those conducted by a certain brewer on Pestalozzi Street, no gift shops selling miniature replicas, no museum-quality displays of famous products and promotions. Nobody at Koken Manufacturing thought to keep samples of the company's gazillion products -- which, like shoes, booze and baseball, helped put St. Louis on the map.

The only records of their existence at the plant are on the pages of the handsome catalogs the company periodically produced. The 1892 Koken catalog, a tonsorial treasure with lavish full-page color plates, featured not only the famous Koken chairs but shaving mugs of every description, backboard mirror cases, wash stands, shoeshine stands, cabinetry, wooden and brass barber poles, barbers' coats and an impressive array of sundries, among them neck-dusters with French bristles, Spanish Wax Pomade "for fixing" and something called "Hair Fertilizer."

Koken receptionist and payroll clerk Ginny Stebe is a scholar of these catalogs and doubles as the firm's unofficial archivist, fielding inquiries on discontinued products from collectors as far away as New Zealand and Austria. "Usually someone has purchased an old chair and they want to know more about it," she says. "They send pictures along with batches of numbers that often don't pertain to anything. I can research it in the catalogs, maybe tell them the model and the years it was produced. But as far as the value, which is what they really want to know, I'm not an antiques dealer."

Today the company makes beauty-salon furniture, dental cabinetry and, yes, tonsorial chairs, only they're called "styling chairs" and look like something you'd find on the bridge of the Enterprise. The showroom contains many compatible industry-related items, such as the Rollerball hair dryer, sort of a revolving electronic halo, which are not manufactured on site but may be speedily ordered from the New Jersey plant, Takara USA.

A visit to the St. Louis factory, guided by general manager Mike Eichenseer, reveals a curious, if not reassuring, mix of high- and low-tech workstations. Over here, Tom McCosky busies himself with the same basic woodworking that his grandfather might have done, stapling and gluing together the leg of what will be a manicure table. Over there, some 15 yards away, Chuck Tinsley works the control panel of a new $100,000 state-of-the-art computerized Giben saw about the size of two picnic tables. Tinsley sets off a nerve-racking sound, and a series of perfectly cut panels, destined to be part of a JC Penney styling station, emerge from the commotion.

Cabinets are very big at Koken these days. In addition to JC Penney, the company produces handsome wood cabinets and furniture for the hair salons of Sears, Fantastic Sam's, Great Clips, the Hair Cuttery and Wal-Mart. Some of the stores provide their own designs, and some, says Eichenseer, "we create for them using a new computer-assisted design program called CabinetVision."

The most likely new direction for the company to move into, says Eichenseer, "is laminated case goods which can be assembled" -- desks, bookcases and department-store fixtures, to name a few. "In fact, we're looking for this sort of work on a contractual basis with local people," he adds.

Overseeing the operation and training for the sexy new equipment on the floor is chief engineer and product designer Michihiro Hirayoshi -- "Yoshi" to his coworkers. The exuberant mechanical engineer came from Japan to St. Louis in 1970, sent by Takara to steer Koken into the future. When he is not designing new products such as the X-Calibur dental cabinet, which houses the x-ray unit and lights, he is planning ways to make the manufacturing floor more efficient.

From hand-painting fine china mugs to designing salon furniture for the 21st century, Koken has weathered the vicissitudes of a fickle industry. Even the product line has drastically evolved. "At one time this company was 90 percent barber," says Rauckman, a third-generation beauty-and-barber salesman. "Now it's 5 percent barber."

But the Koken chair, as Granddad knew it, is far from extinct. Many worn but functional specimens are still in use in barbershops all over the country. The legacy, it seems, is virtually assured. Says John Anich, a purchasing agent who started with Koken in 1955, "It always surprises me. You go to these little towns, and there's always a shop that has a Koken chair."

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