Shaving. For most of us, it’s just another chore that we put up with as part of our morning routine that we don’t give much thought to. We’re tired and groggy in the mornings, so it tends to be a forced and tedious affair. Plus, some of us just don’t like doing it.
It may surprise you to know that man has been shaving since prehistoric times. His methods have obviously evolved from what were some primitive (yet sharp!) flint blades, but his goal has remained the same – to “GET THIS F@#$!** HAIR OFF MY FACE!”
The history of distinct shaving tools is quite interesting and dates back earlier than you might imagine. As far back as the 4th millenium B.C., Bronze Age cultures had specific tools for shaving.
This post will highlight key developments in male shaving history. Hopefully it’ll spark some interest on past techniques, as well as why we shave the way we do today.
The Straight Razor – 1400s
Also known as the cut throat razor, this baby is for the hardcore shaving enthusiast. Used by men since the 13th century, the cut throat is a straight razor with a blade that folds into its handle. This is what your great-grandfather used to shave – what a boss!
Using a straight razor takes a lot of practice and patience. You can seriously hurt yourself if you’re not careful. The razor is so sharp that you don’t need to exert a lot of pressure while shaving. The key is to use small strokes while pulling the skin to keep it taught. The blade itself is sharpened on a leather strap.
The straight razor is still in use today. While almost becoming extinct with the advent of the safety razor in the early 1900s, it is slowly enjoying a surge in popularity among men who want the best shaving experience possible.
It was prominently featured in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall. In his Macau hotel room, Bond (Daniel Craig) prepares for a shave after a nice lather with his badger brush, but is interrupted by Eve (Naomi Harris). She comments on his traditional shaving method and his response? He gives her the blade. Trusting a sharp blade in the hands of a beautiful woman which she’ll then have to skillfully use to shave his face and neck? Bond sure does enjoy some risky foreplay!
Traditional barber shops didn’t have beautiful women serving clients, but they were the best at what they did. Masters of the straight razor, barbers would pamper their clients and have lineups out the door. Nowadays, they’re much rarer, but more specialized. It seems as though modern barber shops are opening up in major cities in response to a demand for luxurious shaving experiences. There’s nothing like reclining in a comfortable leather chair with a hot towel on your face to prepare you for a professional shave. It’s something our great-grandfathers did on a daily basis – and something you should definitely treat yourself to at least once.
The straight razor is shaving in its most primitive (yet effective) form. If you’re adventurous enough to go this route, then your manhood should never come into question. Ever.
The Safety Razor – 1901
The safety razor is what your grandfather used. He was also smarter than you in this regard.
Most famous for the double-edged model, the safety razor is made of carbon steel that holds a blade in a protective case. You can flip the razor on either side to shave. The trick with the safety razor is short strokes and to let the blade do the work. Overt pressure isn’t required. In fact, it’s counterproductive.
A precursor to the modern safety razor was introduced in 1875 by the Kamfe brothers in New York City. They developed what is essentially the model for today’s safety and disposable razors. Their product placed the blade on top of a box at the end of the handle. The shaver would glide the razor across his face and the blade would slightly protrude through its box. This allowed the hair to be cut. The blade could be removed, sharpened, and reused.
It was not until 1905 that the shaving world would change yet again. In 1903, an American by the name of King Camp Gillette refined the model created by the Kamfe brothers with two significant differences – the blade was thinner and disposable. Every time the blade became dull, it would need to be replaced.
The Kemfe brothers changed the manner in which we shave, but Gillette changed the way we consume shaving products. His original design and consumption model are still in use today.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, Western men have moved away from the traditional safety razor to the more common disposable ones. Many argue that this fundamental change has cheapened the art of shaving and led to inferior results.
Like its cut throat forebear, the safety razor has also gained popularity in recent years. The market for men’s hygiene has been steadily increasing and it’s safe to say that the excellent results of a safety razor play into that; but that’s not the only explanation. It’s also the price. Although investing in a good handle can be expensive, the blades are dirt cheap compared to their counterparts. They literally cost pennies compared to over $20 for some four packs of modern razor blades.
For all of these reasons, I decided to give the safety razor a go a few years back.
I used one over the course of four months. Although it felt great and seemed to produce less irritation than most regular razor blades, it was slower and harder to shave tricky areas like my neck. I would have to do multiple passes before my face felt smooth enough. I didn’t want to dedicate that much time to my morning shave, so I eventually ditched it and went back to my modern disposable razor, like the Neanderthal I am.
The Electric Razor – 1928
This razor was first patented in 1928 by American manufacturer Jacob Shtick. Over the years, improvements were made to the razors by allowing more flexibility in the head that allowed for more efficient cutting.
It has rotating or oscillating blades that spin at a very high speed to cut facial hair. They can be great for a quick rough shave, although shaving purists argue that they’re not nearly as good as a traditional wet shave. I tend to disagree with them.
In my experience with a higher-end Braun shaver, I get results that are every bit as close as a razor blade – sometimes even better! Manufacturers such as Braun and Philips are constantly improving their electric shaving technology to get the smoothest shave possible with virtually no irritation.
The strategy with an electric shaver is different than that of a wet shave. No water is required, but applying a pre-shave oil can help. The key is to pull back the skin to keep it taught while moving the shaver up and down – a much easier task during a dry shave since you won’t have to contend with any shaving cream.
One of its shortcomings however, is that it’s not typically effective on the neck area (at least in my experience). Another downside is the price, but it may turn out to be cheaper in the long run as the blade only needs to be replaced every 18 months or so. They tend to go on sale once in a while as well, so keep your eyes peeled for any deals!
The Disposable Razor – 1975
In 1975, Bic introduced its disposable razor to the market. This was a turning point as men no longer had to sharpen or replace their blades. Instead, they could just toss it once they were done. Bic’s success with its plastic wonder caused other companies to follow suit – most notably Gillette.
The disposable razor is what most of us use today. Our great-grandfathers and grandfathers are probably shaking their heads in shame.
Most are made out of rubber and plastic with a blade that detaches for replacements. The blades are much more elaborate than the one found on a safety razor and often include a strip of lubricant to help ease skin irritation.
Because of their convenience, they’ve become prevalent around the world. Companies such as Gillette and Schick dominate the marketplace with their products and are constantly attempting to innovate – adding more blades, battery-powered vibrations, even mini flashlights! Where will the madness end?!
The main downside to the disposable razor is the cost associated with it. Replacement cartridges don’t tend to last very long if you shave every day, and can cost upwards of $20 for a pack of four.
Recently however, online subscription-based companies such as Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s have popped up to address this issue and sell their blades at a significantly lower price. Gillette has responded with their own subscription service in the U.S., so it’ll be interesting to see how prices are affected in the future.
Man’s desire to remove his facial hair will probably never cease. After all, we’ve been doing it for millenia. It’s in the last 150 years that the methods have become more complex.
I don’t subscribe to one specific method myself. Instead, I look back on this rich history and try and select the best elements from each period to tailor my own routine. In my next post, I’ll share that routine with you and provide some tips that I hope will prove useful.
In the meantime, check out some of the products I’ve linked to and see if you find anything that you can add to your shaving arsenal!