I was walking on the beach not long ago and came across a sight not entirely uncommon in Southern California – a pile of trash. Scattered amongst this little hill of debris situated along the foamy line where surf meets sand, was: A plastic lighter, an empty Dasani water bottle and a Gillette disposable razor. Further down the beach lay a Bic ballpoint pen. Now, how is it that both Gillette and Bic, who’ve won over consumers with the offering of cheap lighters, razors and pens, keep us convinced that plastic is the material of choice? When did men’s little personal effects become so cheap, so… disposable?
My dad told me his father used one of those classic steel razors rarely seen in bathrooms today. It was a Gillette safety razor, the kind that used inexpensive double-edged blades and had been around in some form or another since the beginning of the 20th century. I can still remember seeing it sitting on the sink: beautiful, simple and functional in the way mechanical objects often are, with its two hinged doors that opened like some mechanical flower to reveal the razor.
When he first bought it, it took carbon steel blades (that had to be cleaned with alcohol so that they wouldn’t rust), but eventually switched to stainless steel blades in the ’60s. Though few improvements were introduced in the coming years, the basic design left little to be desired in the hands of one as capable and as patient as my grandfather. For over 40 years, he spent a good 25 minutes a day shaving with that razor, making sure his skin was properly lubricated, holding it at just the right angle so as not to cut himself, and cleaning it thoroughly. As far as I can remember, I never saw a nick on his chin.
My father, the scientist in the family, was much more willing to try different technologies (he was also the one with the bits of toilet paper sticking to his face). Back in the mid ’70s he used a Schick Injector, a razor that had been introduced to market 50 years earlier by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Schick (1878 – 1937).
The Schick razor was made popular by a clever engineering feat allowing the user to load a fresh new blade by inserting the end of a clip into the head. This convenience was something that appealed to my mechanical-minded father and many fathers like him. Though his razor was nowhere near as aesthetically interesting as Grandpa’s old double-edged blade version, it was still made of steel and looked much better than the plastic multi-blade razors that would come a few years later.
Nowadays, razor blades have been almost entirely replaced by cartridges and the competition between the giants, still Schick and Gillette, is fiercer than ever. Before I grew out my beard I invested a tiny fortune in one of these, a Gillette Mach 3, a razor whose name alone promised a close shave in record time. I forked over twenty bucks every few months for cartridges (eight, to be precise, three blades each, replete with rubber fins and lubricating strip). The Mach 3 did shave amazingly well, but it also created a measurable amount of trash in the form of spent cartridges and packaging.
There are many theories why companies like Gillette and Schick made the jump to the cartridge-type razor; one explanation was that the transition gave each company control over the blades that were used. In the ’60s, a plethora of manufacturers around the world were making blades that could fit Gillette’s razors creating intense competition, driving prices, and consequently drove profits down. Today, most brands use proprietary cartridges with each cartridge only fitting the razor of the same brand, ensuring profits remain optimal.
Still, the classic safety razor found a loyal following. Various companies continue to make very affordable versions that use double-edged blades which can still be bought for about a quarter each. But will this type of razor outlive nostalgia? Is it inferior to the modern version, with all its fancy bells and whistles? Does it simply lack practicality?
According to a number of blogs on the subject, it’s about the modern man getting reacquainted with the daily ceremonies of his masculinity, with the tools of these ceremonies, and with his own face. My grandfather seems to think as much. He, like thousands of other men throughout the world, have become the practitioners of patience in the bathroom and are more than willing to show us how to “do it right.”