Dapper by Knife: A Hot-Lather Shave at an Old-School Chicago Barbershop

BY: SCOTT HIRSCH | 5.16.2013 |
Chicago Style & Home: A Hot-Lather Shave at an Old-School Barbershop

The man holding the razorblade to my neck was named Joe Caccavella Jr., and I liked him because he was friendly, talented, and not trying to kill me.

Instead, Joe Jr. was in charge of giving me my first ever hot-lather shave. A third-generation barber and the son of Joe Caccavella Sr.—the owner and founder of Joe’s Barbershop in Logan Square—Joe Jr. is a champion of old-school barbering and especially the hot-lather shave, which he calls a “dying art.”

It’s still alive at Joe’s, though. The shop has been doing straight-razor shaves since 1968, hewing to the same labor-intensive process that once made the practice a popular men’s pastime. Today, you need a special Illinois barber’s license—separate from the cosmetologist license most salons and barbershops possess—to perform the meticulous treatment. No problem there: Joe’s is fully licensed, and for $20, you get a buttery-soft face and a ticket back in time.

Not that the shop's throwback feel is some calculated ploy. You get the sense that the antique cash register, formica barber’s chests, and eight-track player set to an endless Sinatra loop are there not because of a retro design firm's recommendations but because the shop never saw a reason to update them. Joe’s is also small, with just three barber's chairs and a clutter of Harley-Davidson signs and pomade cans that lend it a decidedly masculine vibe.

Once I'd settled into the barber's chair, Joe Jr. laid a hot towel on my face. The hot towel is meant to warm the skin and open up the pores, but it also felt like a prelude. It lulled me into a leisurely state of mind that seemed in tune with the easygoing atmosphere.

After removing the towel, Joe Jr. massaged hot lather into my skin in circular motions. The purpose of the lather is twofold: it cleanses the face of any debris and dead skin, and it raises the hairs to make for swift and fluid removal. The spiraling hand movements made my face go lax, and the lather made it tingle.

Sinatra crooned through the eight-track all the while. When I was 21, he sang, it was a very good year. That was enough to inspire an oration from Joe Sr., who was cutting hair in the next chair over. “Enjoy your youth,” he said to the customers waiting their turn. “I started cutting hair when I was 21, right after I got back from Vietnam. Now I’m 66. But I still love this song.”

Banter is a big part of the old-fashioned barbershop’s charm, and Joe’s did not lack for dialogue. As Joe Jr. prepped my face, he expounded on marriage, beards, and what makes for an authentic barbershop. “Any real barbershop should have wood panels, [mounted] fish on the walls, and at least one Italian man,” he told me. I would’ve scanned the room to confirm the presence of the panels and fish—I already knew that Joe Sr. hailed from Foggia, Italy—but my face was immersed in a second hot towel and I had no intention of moving it.

Joe Jr. used a total of four hot towels throughout the treatment, applying them between handfuls of oils, lathers, and creams. This had a surprising effect—it made me feel simultaneously sedate and invigorated, like I might doze off and then dream of doing jumping jacks.

But I forced myself to stay awake. I wanted to feel the blade mow my skin, to experience the thrill and twinge of danger I thought would come from having a straight razor pressing against my face. Joe Jr. smeared shaving cream along my cheeks, mustache, chin, and neck, and finally brought out the blade.

I’ve never been one for machismo, but as the sharp blade grazed my skin, I could almost feel my Y chromosomes flexing their muscles. Joe Jr. moved the razor deliberately along the grain, pulling the skin taut while explaining that the tighter the skin, the better the shave. This was the first part of the shave—a "once-over" to remove the bulk of the hair.

During part two—the “close shave”—Joe Jr.’s artistry was on full display. He whittled away the remnants of my mustache, pared down stray patches of whiskers, and shaped my sideburns to my exact specifications. A cold towel, a couple palmfuls of Bay Rum aftershave, and some talc powder stirred me back to the world of the wakeful.

I hadn’t seen—or felt—my bare face in years, and both sensations were jarring. My fingers practically slid off my chin when out of habit I went to stroke it. My skin felt soft enough to poke my finger through. I looked younger and felt it, too. Later that night, I tried to buy a drink and a bartender asked to see my ID—the first time in years that had happened.

That’s what surprised me. It turns out the hot-lather treatment isn’t just a shave; it’s an indulgence. Joe Jr. calls it a “manly facial” and tells me he has beardless clients that come just for the experience. If I’d heard that yesterday, I’d have called them crazy.

Walk-ins only. The lines can be long and the barbers take their time, so arrive early or be prepared to hang out. As Joe Jr. puts it, "If a customer comes in and asks, 'How long is the wait?' I tell them, 'Too long for you.’”

Guide Staff Writer
BY: Scott Hirsch Guide Staff Writer