One of my favorite things about winter is that I can put the shorts away and take a break from shaving. No more awkward balancing act in the shower, with one foot on the slippery wall, trying not to nick myself. However, I am not the only one to have this problem, as shaving is the most common method of hair removal in the entire world. In fact, I should be super grateful, because the razors we use today have come a long way over the years.
Archeologists believe that removing hair dates as far back as the prehistoric times. People removed hair by shaving, plucking, and rubbing off unwanted follicles with abrasive materials. Shaving was common in India and Ancient Egypt, for religious and weather-related reasons. Razors have been made from a myriad of durable materials, including volcanic glass like the ones used by the Ancient Mayans, or sharpened sea shells like those used by Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.
It wasn’t until the 1760s that the first straight razor with a safety guard was invented by the Jean Jacques Perret. A French master cutler who wrote the booklet Pogonotomy, or The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself, he saw the razor as more than just a sharpened piece of metal. Ironically, his invention was later nicknamed the cut-throat razor. It would be another century and then some before the humble razor began to truly transform into what we use almost everyday in our own modern bathroom. As much as I hate shaving with my pink disposable double-bladed swivel-head razor, at least I am not tweezing off all my hair by holding two seashells together, like the Egyptians. The developments in the 20th Century will make you appreciate what a small marvel of engineering the razor truly is.
1. 1904: King Camp Gillette And The First Disposable Razor Blade
In 1895, traveling salesman King C. Gillette first dreamed of a disposable razor blade. He saw it as the only answer to reducing the trouble of having to continuously sharpen and reassemble one's safety razor head.
He was told that it would be impossible to mass-produce such a sharp and thin piece of metal economically until he met MIT professor William Nickerson. By 1901 they had concocted the equipment which allowed for the first disposable double-edged safety razor. They had revolutionized the shaving business, filing a patent in 1904 and within two years selling 300,000 units. The brand became so popular that Gillette had a US Army contract supplying every soldier with a safety razor during the First World War.
2. 1915: "Milady Decolletée" First Razor For Women
To remove unwanted hair, most women of the time were using depilatory creams, which had been popular since Poudre Subtile was invented by Dr. Gouraud in 1844. Many found the creams to be irritating, and to offer an alternative Gillette debuted the first razor specifically marketed to women called Milady Decolletée. Gillette ran an magazine advertisement of a woman in an elegant evening gown, raising her arm to reveal armpits free of hair. Plated in 14k gold tucked in a leather case, the razor cost five whole dollars ($115 in today's money). It was marketed as a fashion accessory and sold in jewelry stores, as well as department stores. Boy, they knew how to build a classy razor back then. The directions for use called the razor "The safest and most Sanitary Method to keep the Under-Arm Smooth."
3. 1928: First Electric Razor And The Dry Shave Market
In 1928, the first electric razor was successfully designed and patented by Jacob Schick. The retired army colonel believed deeply in the health benefits of shaving — so much so that he thought a man could live an extra 120 years if he shaved frequently enough. However, the stock market crash of 1929, coupled with an unwieldy design, limited the new razors success. Schick's second design consolidated the motor and made the electric razor more sleek and easy to use, hitting the shelves in 1931. They sold for $25 (about $350 today), and by 1937 Schick had sold 1.5 million devices. The less messy "dry shaving" method, which could be done without shaving cream and water, became an enormous market.
4. 1940s: First Electric Razor For Women
Remington developed the first electric razor for women at the dawn of World War II. Due to the shortage of nylon during wartime and changing fashions, it became socially acceptable for women to go barelegged. The "dry shaving" method was marketed as a faster and less expensive alternative.
5. 1960s: First Stainless Steel Blades For More Shaves
Shaving changed again when the British grooming firm Wilkinson Sword was the first to introduce stainless steel blades. They had been manufacturing them since 1954, but they hadn't become popular till the 1960s when they perfected the process with a special coating. Gillette's researchers discovered the drag effect in the mid-1950s, and introduced coated blades made out of carbon in 1960. Gillette's "super blue blade" became popular as they cut down on the roughness of shaving, but dulled faster. A 1962 Chicago Tribune article covered the shaving wars between Gillette (the US's largest shaving company at the time) and Wilkinson Sword who had just taken over a large share of the market.
Disposable razor blades had been previously manufactured out of carbon steel, which would dull and oxidize if not properly dried after a single use. The popularity of stainless steel, which without corrosion could be used until dull, forced American companies such as Gillette and Schick to switch to these blades as well. Gillette held a patent for one of the processes needed to produce the stainless steel blades, and after a legal battle, Wilkinson Sword had to pay "substantial royalties" to Gillette. A controversy bubbled up over whether Gillette had held out on switching to stainless steel earlier making its users unnecessarily buy carbon blades that would dull faster.
6. 1971: First Multi-Blade Razor
Gillette changed the shaving market again when they introduced the multi-blade shaving system with the Trac II razor. Always a fan of large advertisement campaigns, Gillette ran a two-page ad in Life Magazine explaining, "The 1st blade gets most of your whisker. The 2nd blade gets whisker the 1st blade leaves behind. Two separate blades — to get whisker one blade could miss." Today, a twin-blade system is the norm for disposable drugstore razors. They seem tame compared to today's more expensive five or seven blade razors.
Over time, shaving systems have gotten more specialized — such as the curves of the Venus for women or a small vibrating bikini line trimmer. But 45 years later, whether a razor has two blades or seven doesn't seem to make a difference.