This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Gillette. All opinions are 100% mine with my standard disclosure.
In considering a post on the History of Shaving, and wondering about the cultural insights that led to various developments of the facial blade, I used some fairly-anecdotal (read: fictional) sources to come up with the razor’s ancient history. This was done to keep post flow from feeling too dry… because, as we all know, dry shaves are insufferable.
Neanderthal supermodel HgKf GfRRRg popularizes the smooth, lice-free look when she plucks every last hair from her chinny-chin-chin with two seashells fashioned into tweezing implements. However, when she succumbs to a moment of hubris and tries to indicate to her tribe that the sudden loss of whiskers is due to the divine blessing of the Great Mammoth Mother Goddess, she is mocked and exiled into the Land-Beyond-the-Mountains-Where-the-Sun-Takes-a-Power-Nap. This is where we get the expression “bald-faced liar.”
Between 30,000 BC – 1700 AD
Clam shell, shark tooth, flint, obsidian, gold, copper, bronze, iron, and steel razors are developed with varying degrees of sophistication from Scandinavia to Greece to Rome to Mesopotamia to Egypt to Byzantium to Central America and beyond. The basic idea is simple: sharp, straight blades scrape hair — unwanted for whatever cultural reasons dictated by aesthetics of the time — from whatever part of the body it is deemed unfashionable. Usually, preening monarchs set the trend of beard popularity based upon how hideous or handsome their naked faces are found to be.
It is said that Alexander the Great sported his clean-shaven look to avoid fatal beard-grabbing in combat, but the truth is actually much stranger than fiction in this case. An oracle counseled the conqueror against letting his stubble flow freely because his rivals, the Persians, were assembling the world’s first chia face as a way of mocking the vain leader and turning his countenance into a gag gift for the next few generations. Alex made sure to never go into public with even a five o’clock (or so — sundials aren’t an exact science) shadow, and took over Persia just to teach the people there a lesson.
The millennia-old design of the straight razor reached its turning point when French barber Jean-Jacques Perret proposed the idea of a safety razor — a straight razor designed to be less bloodletting than its predecessors by featuring a wooden, L-shaped guard along the blade — in his treatise “La Pogonotomie” (The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself). Up until now, it was accepted that shaving could be a potentially deadly habit if not left to the care of steady-handed experts. Perret envisioned a world where the masses could become masters of their own facial grooming and serious barbers like himself could focus on more important issues (like sideburn sculpting and pompadour shaping). Not long after, a fellow Frenchman by the name of Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin would have other ideas about the use of a blade on the masses…
Nevertheless, the notion of a safer razor ignited the imagination of several inventive minds over the next couple of centuries.
English inventor William Samuel Henson finds the time between trying to fly in a steam-powered aeroplane, hypothesizing on the origins of the solar system, and making doilies for high-society teacup collectors to create the first T-shaped “hoe type” razor. (“If the aeroplane doesn’t work out,” he remarks to an assistant, “at least I can keep my blimp hand strong.”) Its blade runs perpendicular to its handle in a design that most modern shavers can appreciate, and this sets the stage for the further evolution of the safety razor.
American brothers Frederick, Richard, and Otto F. Kampfe file a patent for a cheap, compact safety razor that features a removable handle and a hollow “lather-catcher” meant to keep genteel hands free of whisker debris. Soon after, three other American brothers, Moe, Larry, and Curly, keep their facial hair at bay by various pranks and hijinx that should never be tried at home. They shun safety at every opportunity, and would probably invent a more dangerous razor if they had the smarts and weren’t such knuckleheads and wiseguys. These Three Stooges are the anti-Kampfes.
The American (Gillette) acquires a patent for the first disposable safety razor. This type of blade was popularized when issued to hundreds of thousands of American G.I.s during World War I, thusly spreading its use to Europe by demonstration of practicality on the move. Trenches from Ypres to Gallipoli are cluttered ankle-deep with millions of discarded razor blades, which sell for big money as scrap metal in the post-war marketplace.
It would have been pretty cool if Willis G. Shockey, with the word “shock” right there in his name, could have been the one to invent the electric razor, right? Alas, he only succeeds in creating a wind-up safety razor, which is at least a step in the right direction. A flywheel, wound by hand, drives this razor’s automation — making it about as high-tech as a jack-in-the-box cranked up to the maddening din of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Shockey’s brother, when presented with the idea and delusions of how rich this jittery little gadget is going to make the family, can only shake his head and exclaim, “Where there’s a Willis, there’s a way!”
There was an Iowa native (not me, and not a relative of mine) – a tough ol’ buzzard who once hacked apart a moose for food when injured and stranded in the Alaskan wilderness during a gold prospecting expedition in 1910. Strangely enough, his thoughts dwelt less on side dishes for the moose or mending enough to get out of the Alaskan wilderness than they did on finding an easier way to shave. (Hey, I’d probably have welcomed a beard for the extra warmth in this situation, but clearly Iowans were cut from a different cloth back in the day.)
His idea for a dry shaver that would be powered by an electrical motor began to formulate around this time, but the plans he drew up featured a giant, unwieldy hunk of bits and pieces that no manufacturer approached with a proposal found marketable enough.
The idea would have to be put on hold, however. When World War I erupted, this guy joined the army and found himself living through plenty of death-defying ordeals; they continued to fuel his oddball obsession with shaving during inappropriate times of crisis. By the time peace broke out and he left the army in 1919, he was ready to resume his dry electric shaver dream. He drummed up capital toward this pursuit by applying weapon technology he’d experienced during the war to create the magazine repeating razor; this allowed people to easily load disposable blades into their razors without the risk of cutting themselves.
Enjoying commercial success with this innovation, it was only a matter of time before the long-imagined dry electric shaver became reality. It hit the market in 1929 and continues to evolve to this day.
What’s next? Quantum shavers? Laser razors? The possibilities are only limited by the human capacity to expand on our species’ collective imagination. Why, if I had a laser razor right now… I could combine my long-overdue LASIK surgery with grooming needs all in one fell swoop. Whatever the case, innovation contoured to consumer insights will forever be key.
A man must always put his best face forward… and before you tell me it’s supposed to be his “best foot,” which body part would you notice on him first? First impressions can last a lifetime; spending a little more time and money on a “perfect” shave could spell all the difference.