The Razor’s Edge
By Don Millard
It all came to me at the Dollar Store.
As I stood there rubbing the prickly two day’s worth of beard poking through my skin and making my face feel like sandpaper, I stared at the prices of razor blades in disbelief.
Of course this was not the first time I’d been appalled at these ridiculous prices, but the sheer rip off factor of it all really hit home. But, absurdly, I’d hoped that Family Dollar might, just might be the last bastion of reasonable prices for replacement cartridges for my multi-blade razor. Oops, I mean my “shaving system.” In the bullshit parlance of shaving industry advertising, razors are no longer called razors. Prices for replacement blades seem insanely expensive? But, but this is a “shaving system”! Silly me. I’d just come from cursing the prices of such blades at Wal-Mart only to find that the situation here no different.
“I don’t fuckin’ believe this,” I said out loud, almost as though I were expecting a reply.
There was no response, save for the sound of a child being spanked in another aisle. There’s always a kid getting his ass beat at a Dollar Store. It’s one of the constants of consumer life, like getting a shopping cart with a bum wheel or the person in front of you in line writing a check for a Zagnut.
It seems like only yesterday that a razor sporting 3 blades was the latest so-called cutting edge technology in the “science” of shaving. In 1998, Gillette rolled out the Mach 3, the world’s first triple blade razor, like it was the Porsche of razors. The introduction of the Mach 3 was also accompanied by about a 30% mark up on the replacement cartridges needed for this “shaving system.” But Gillette knew that Americans would pay this inflated price for the privilege of having the latest “advance” in a razor. Of course once the Mach 3 came out, Schick and other razor manufacturers had to follow suit. I’d held on to my Gillette Sensor twin blade razor as long as I could because I was able to get generic replacement blades for said razor. But those days were over, and my particular twin blade Gillette Sensor shaver was now as obsolete as an 8 track tape. Consequently, I had to make the switch to a triple blade razor or be relegated to using plastic razors in a bag. So, faced with this choice, I grudgingly started buying 3 bladed shavers and paying more for the blades. But now, just a few years later, my once advanced shaver was now suddenly the PONG of razors, with new “shaving systems” that featured 4 and even 5 blades. And, now I couldn’t even find decently priced generic blades for my prehistoric triple bladed shave stick. Can you say planned obsolescence, anyone? The way it is now, the average guy almost has to take a second job just to afford shaving. In 2003, Gillette’s Mach 3 razor was the most shoplifted item in the world. Criminals love razor blades because they’re easy to sell and easy to re-sell. The brazen racket of it all disgusted me to the core.
Though I have fairly light hair, I’ve always had a pretty heavy beard and needed a halfway decent razor to get a close shave. But now, even THIS was a luxury. Yes, I’ve tried electric razors and all they do is burn my face. I’ve also tried those BIC disposable razors and all they did was cut my face up. They should stick to lighters.
I can still remember when I started shaving and what a thrill it was the day my Dad took me down to the drug store to get me my own razor and shaving cream so I could get rid of my peach fuzz sideburns. I was 16 and couldn’t wait to shave. I think every guy feels this way. It’s one of those classic rites of passage that boys treasure almost as much getting your driver’s license or the day when you can legally buy alcohol. But, thirty years later, shaving was not only a dreary chore, it was also a financial burden!
Like a typical consumer sucker, I wondered: Gee, why are new blades so expensive when the razor was cheap? More than once I’ve bought the same razor twice just to get the blades cheaper. I bet you have, too. Then it hit me. Today’s razor manufacturers are like drug dealers–give away the razor and a blade or two for a taste. The first shave is free…
The more I thought about it all, the angrier I got. Here I was, with two of the same razors and no blades. My blood pressure spiked as I looked at the names of some of these “shaving systems” with 4 and 5 blades. They all had names that sounded like sports cars; names like “Fusion”, “Mach 5 Turbo”, “Hydro” and are hawked by star athletes–probably because they’re the only ones who can afford the blades for them.
Thoroughly pissed off, I left the Family Dollar store without buying a thing. As I drove away, I decided there had to be a solution to this problem besides buying a bag full of cheap plastic razors made in China or joining ZZ Top.
There had a be a third way. Had to be.
Turns out there is such a way, and it was (no pun intended) staring me in the face the whole time…
One of the few television shows I like to watch is AMERICAN RESTORATION on the History Channel. It’s a show where old items are restored and brought back to life. It also has slightly more historical value than MUDCATS. Or ICE ROAD TRUCKERS. Or AXE MEN. Or SWAMP PEOPLE. Although I’m the least mechanical guy on the planet and can barely roll up an extension cord, I enjoy the technical aspect of the show as well. But what really resonates with me is the show’s opening words by restorer Rick Dale: “Remember back in the day when things were made by hand and people took pride in their work?” Watching this show makes me mourn for all that we’ve lost in the name of “progress.”
Just as our infrastructure is crumbling in the name of eternal tax cuts, so much of our manufacturing base has been sacrificed on the altar of Wal-Mart. So many times, it seems, we’d rather buy the same cheap, crappy item made overseas 10 times rather than purchase a quality product made here once for a few dollars more. Of course corporate greed and low wages have also played a part in this transformation.
What does this all have to do with shaving? Well, a LOT.
Just a few days after my shaving meltdown at Family Dollar, I came across a box of about 6 or 7 vintage razors I’d collected about 10 years ago. I’d forgotten I still had them, actually. Seeing them again after all this time, I remembered why I collected them in the first place. They looked cool and were pleasing to the eye. The razors I’d collected were the original Schick Injector razors, first made from 1935 to 1946 with gold-plated heads and short Bakelite handles. Although even the modern injector razor is no longer made, Schick still makes blades for this shaver. In fact, injector blades made today not only fit the last model of this particular razor, they also still fit the very first injector razors made in 1935. Now THAT’S a “shaving system.”
A little history…
The injector razor and the electric razor were the brainchild of a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Jacob Schick. A veteran of both the Spanish-American War and World War I, Schick spent five of his Army years between the wars stationed in Alaska coordinating the construction of more than a thousand miles of communication line in the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System.
A stickler for always being clean-shaven, Jacob Schick viewed daily shaving as a must for any civilized man and saw it as a sign of self-respect. It was during this time in Alaska that Schick first got the idea of designing a razor that would solve the problem of shaving in Artic climates as well as the danger of handling razor blades in subzero temperatures. He also wanted to devise a “motorized” device for “dry shaving” when hot water–or even cold running water was not an option. The time Schick spent in Alaska led to his two most famous inventions–the injector razor and the electric razor–kind of the way Jack London’s time in Alaska inspired Call Of The Wild, White Fang, and numerous short stories.
A year after being discharged from the Army, Lieutenant Colonel Schick invented a new kind of safety razor in 1921. He called it the ‘Magazine Repeating Razor’. This new type of razor was modeled after the repeating rifle Schick himself carried in the Army. In Schick’s new shaver, the replacement blades were stored in a clip that could be fed into the shaving head with a lever, thereby removing the hazard of handling the sharp blade with human hands. These magazine repeating razors were made in three models between 1926 and 1935 and were the forerunners to the razors I had in my box. The only real difference in the razors I had was the separate magazine clip that held the blades that are to be injected into the head of the razor. The mechanism works by pushing the old blade out and injecting the new blade into the head of the razor all in one motion. The Schick injector razor was and still is the only razor in the world to ever have an automatic blade changer.
The razors themselves were like a work of art. I remember even seeing one of them in the American History wing of the Smithsonian. But though they were pleasing to the eye, the semi-exposed gleaming blade in its gold-plated head told you this was a MAN’S razor. You could tell they were old because they were built to last, not fall apart in a few months. In fact, in 1941 Schick guaranteed each razor for 20 YEARS.
Even though I’d put new blades in these razors years ago, I never had the nerve to try to shave with one of them. Once or twice I’d gone as far as to put the razor up to my face. As I felt the cold steel of the blade against my cheek, I wondered how any man shaved with one and lived to tell about it. Someone told me that shaving with one of these beauties was as close as you could get to shaving with a straight razor. This alone had been enough to keep me from trying the injector out. I wanted a close shave, but I didn’t want to have to call 911.
Speaking of straight razors, by the way, how do you get good with one without cutting your own throat first? My birth mother told me that my grandfather shaved with one all of his life, never even switching over to a safety razor. He died in 1974 (not from shaving) at the age of 72 in 1974, but I never got the chance to know him.
Anyhow, I decided that if my grandfather could shave with a straight razor his whole life, I could try to shave with my 70 year old vintage Shick Injector razor at least once.
My decision made, I read what I could on the web and even watched a few videos for tips on how to shave with an old school razor. I learned very quickly that basically I’d have to un-learn all of the bad habits I’d picked up by shaving with a multi-blade cartridge razor. In particular, the one thing I warned not to do was the one thing I always did: PRESS DOWN on my face with the blade. Applying pressure and pressing down on my face had become my signature style of shaving. This habit was due mainly to crappy plastic cartridge blades that become dull almost right after the first shave. Because of the expense, I was forever trying to extend the life and save money by shaving with a dull ass blade as long as humanly possible, but my face was the one paying the price with terrible razor burn, especially the red irritation around my neck. I might as well have been trying to carve a turkey with a butter knife.
It was time to shave.
For my maiden voyage into manly shaving, the injector razor I chose from my collection was the one with the art deco butterscotch Bakelite handle. It was the oldest of my old razors. Here’s a picture of it:
As I held the vintage razor in my hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about its original owner. Since the model I going to try to use was made from 1935 to 1938, I thought about this pocket of time in our history and the man who originally put this razor up to his face… Was this the razor he learned to shave with? Did he shave with it during the dark days of the Great Depression? Was he shaving with it when he heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor? Did he go to war? Was this razor waiting for him when he came home? Or was he killed in the war and his widow didn’t have the heart to throw out his razor? Who knows. But no matter what its history, this razor had surely survived its first owner and, eight decades later, was now in my nervous 21st century hands. Thinking about it all, it was kind of an honor just to hold this thing.
To really experience a truly old school “wet shave”, I needed shaving soap and a shaving brush to work up a lather. Since I had neither, I had to use my canned chemical shaving gel. But, rather than just splashing my face with warm water like usual, I applied a hot towel to my face instead. The steamy cloth felt good on my face and I could feel my facial muscles relaxing. When the towel cooled off, I ran more hot water over it and repeated the process for about another minute or two.
As I now spread the shaving cream on my face with my hands, I kept reminding myself not to press down on the blade once I started shaving. I also had to remember to try to keep my wrist locked so I wouldn’t change the proper blade angle–assuming I could find it to start with, of course. Just let the razor do the work, I told myself. It was easy. All I had to do was NOT do what I’d been doing for 30 YEARS.
I tentatively put the razor to my cheek, using my left hand to stretch the skin tight in the area I was about to shave (or slice open) as if I were using a straight razor. Here we go, I thought…
At first there was nothing… I was neither cutting myself nor shaving whiskers off my face. I braced myself as I angled the handle away from my face at what I hoped was a 30 degree angle as I’d read you’re supposed to do. I hoped my geometry was right as I began to roll the blade slowly down my cheek. Suddenly I heard the classic unmistakable sound of whiskers being sliced off cleanly. I’d never actually heard this sound except in the movies; movies like RIO BRAVO and the scene where Angie Dickinson shaves Dean Martin with a cutthroat razor. Until now, I thought this wonderful old school sound was just a movie sound effect. But it was real. This was the sound of a man shaving, not some lazy guy blindly hacking away at his skin with a cartridge blade designed to self-destruct after the first shave. You only get this sound by shaving with a single blade razor.
Inspired by initial success and the lack of carnage, I shaved on. My nervousness started to disappear and it sounded like I could hear every single hair being removed from my face. Still,
as I shaved on, I also reminded myself that the goal on this first “pass” was beard reduction, not beard removal. Therefore, I used short strokes rather than my old method of shaving from right below my ear to my throat all in one swipe. Strangely, I found the concentration this all required to be relaxing rather than stressful or laborious. My first shave with an old school razor was a little easier for me than it might be for some others because I have a goatee, which saves me from having to shave my chin & moustache area, two of the trickier regions to shave.
After finishing my first pass, I wiped the residual shaving cream from my face and applied a hot towel to my face again. I could feel that there were still a few rough patches of stubble on my face in the usual stubborn spots, but the rest of my face was already SMOOTH. Lathering up once more, I prepared for Round Two.
During the second pass, I was even more comfortable and confident with my new old razor. I even shaved against the grain, in a South to North direction to defeat the toughest stubble. When I did this, the remaining whiskers fell away cleanly and smoothly as well. I had done it.
Because I’d shaved with only a single blade, one of the most enjoyable parts was that the whiskers from my beard didn’t get clogged in between the other blades every twenty seconds. When you shave with three, four, or even five blades, you end up spending half of your time trying to knock the clogged hair loose by banging the razor head against the sink. And sometimes when you do this, the cartridge comes apart from the razor and you pray that it didn’t actually break off as you fish it out of the sink. Fun. This entire exasperating ritual had been eliminated by using just one blade. What a concept.
Amazed, I wiped my face with a towel and saw that there were no cuts on my face, not even a nick. Seeing that my face was unharmed, I rinsed my face off with cold water to close my pores. It was invigorating. Fittingly, I finished my old school “wet shave” off by splashing Pinaud Clubman after shave on my face for that classic barber shop smell.
I couldn’t believe what a close shave this vintage razor had just given me. Far from being cut up, my face was baby smooth, but I prefer the term girlfriend smooth. My face was as smooth as it had been before I ever HAD to shave, way back in the Reagan administration. Not only was my stubble removed, but gone too was the usual razor burn around my neck that I thought I had to live with because of my heavy beard.
All of this was a revelation to me. Armed with a 70 year old razor and only one blade, I had just given myself the best shave of my life! I felt like a new man. I knew right then that I would never shave with a plastic multi-blade razor ever again. I knew that I’d also never waste another dime on costly replacement cartridges as well. I was going cold turkey and my face was already thanking me for it. The days of me being a sucker on the corporate shave train were over.
Sure, my wet shave had taken a little longer, but some of that was because this was my very first shave with a single blade old school razor. My girlfriend smooth face and the total abscence of razor burn more than made up for the extra time involved. Even though we live in a microwave society, some things should take longer than 90 seconds. Furthermore, I felt like I had taken part in the same ritual as my father and grandfather before me. Somehow, SOMEHOW they’d managed with just ONE blade, not Three or Four or FIVE. As I write this, there’s now even a razor with SIX BLADES. Gillette and Schick (the Coca-Cola & Pepsi of the shaving industry, respectively) each now have a battery powered version of their latest wonder that vibrates. What are we? Shaving with vibrators now? How many blades will the next generation shave with? TEN? TWENTY?
Speaking of vibrators, Gillette is now owned by Proctor & Gamble since 2005 who also manufacture Duracell batteries, so the Gillette vibrator comes equipped with that brand of battery. Shick, on the other hand, is now owned by Energizer Industries, so the Schick vibrator comes with–you guessed it–Energizer batteries. Call me old-fashioned, but vibrators belong in the bedroom, not the bathroom.
A few days later I got myself a shaving brush and some shave soap in order to go completely old school. Working up a lather took a tiny bit of effort, but I enjoyed the tactile sensation of the lather on my face with a brush. I noticed, too, that the lather didn’t dry out on my face right away like the pressurized chemical goop in a can I usually used. Using a shaving brush also helps lift up the whiskers on your face, thus making shaving easier no matter what kind of razor you use. Try it sometime and see.
For me, one shave with shaving soap was enough to convince me to abandon the flammable aerosol can. Also, it’s more eco-friendly because there’s no can to dispose of, the only waste is the soap that goes down your drain. The blades themselves that vintage razors use are easily recyclable, too, whereas the modern plastic cartridge blade is not and is just one more thing clogging up a land fill. So, by going retro, you can get a much better, closer shave and go green at the same time.
Although I was even able to find new injector blades at a local grocery store, they aren’t that much cheaper than the cartridge blades. You’re also forced to shave with an old injector razors, as Schick no longer makes the injector razor. If you really want to a great shave and save a LOT of money, a safety razor is the way. Yes, the heavy safety razor that uses a double edged blade that’s been around for 100 years–the same one your grandpa used, and probably still uses if he’s still living. You can save some serious coin doing so, since the average cost of a good, double-edged blade is 25 cents or less. The average cartridge blade cost $2 or $3 or more apiece!
Despite my new found love of the vintage Schick injector razor, I wanted to save money as well as get a close shave. Accordingly, I’ve now switched to a new safety razor made by Edwin Jagger in England. For about $35, I now have a classy, well-made razor that will last me the rest of my life. I won’t have to buy it twice to get a better deal on new blades, either. I can order a carton of a good quality not made in China for around $15 (including shipping). The price for FOUR replacement cartridges for the FUSION “shaving system” is $20! A good double edged blade will give you about a week’s worth of great shaves, so that’s basically TWO YEARS worth of blades.
Yes, there is a bit of a learning curve in using a safety razor, but it’s not rocket science. I’ve been using mine for about two weeks now and haven’t cut myself once. I’m getting the best shaves of my life and won’t have to buy blades for another two years. And even if I do get a few nicks along the way, that will be nothing compared to the nicks my wallet has been enduring for many years. By far, the worst cuts I’ve ever got came from using disposable plastic razors made in China.
The multi-billion dollar shaving industry has been fooling its customers since 1971, when Gillette introduced the twin-blade razor and the shaving wars began. Guys have been tugging at their face and irritating their skin by scraping multiple blades across it instead of slicing their stubble off smoothly with a single blade ever since. Everything you need for a fantastically close and comfortable shave was perfected in the early 20th century.