I’ve long admired the cheeks and jowls of ancient Romans.
Clean-shaven, those mugs: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julius Caesar and the rest as they appear in sculptured busts.
It’s easy to have a smooth chin when you’re sculpted in marble or alabaster. It’s something else again when you have a biological face with little hairs that keep growing out of it.
But if those busts are true to life, how did the ancients manage it? They must have had sharp Iron Age razors. Or did they use Iron Age tweezers to pluck the hairs out, one by one?
Ouch. Too much information. I don’t know and I don’t care.
I come to bury Caesar and praise King Gillette.
Some people’s names seem to determine their lives. Martin Luther King was bound to be a clergyman of some kind. The same goes for the late Methodist bishop John Wesley Lord.
So King Gillette was destined to become some kind of royalty. Shaving royalty, as it turns out.
Through most of the 19th century, shaving was a challenge.
You had to use a wicked sharp razor. Straight razors took such a keen edge they often doubled as personal protective devices for folks who trod dark alleys at night. Like a good jackknife, their blades folded neatly into a handle of wood, bone, ivory, steel, or mother-of-pearl.
You had to lather your face. That was the easy part. Any soap would do, although special shaving soaps were sold. They were cylindrical so they could fit into a mug. You would grip the mug by its handle, wet the soap with hot water, work up a lather using a badger-hair brush, and use that brush to spread the lather across your face.
Then, gripping the razor in the fingers of one hand, you drew the blade across your cheeks, chin, and throat, slicing off the stubble while trying to miss the larger arteries and veins. Men often delegated this hazardous job to professional barbers.
If you had the daring to shave yourself, a single outing dulled the edge of the razor. You had to re-hone it before your next shave. You honed it on the grainy side of a leather strap. Special straps made for this purpose were called “strops” to distinguish them from other straps.
The strop served a double purpose. It could be used on your wayward children. Wayward boys knew the strop was waiting for them at home should their adventures get too adventurous.
You had to keep this old hunk of leather around, you had to know how to whet your razor with it, and you had to wield the razor in such a way as to mow down whiskers but leave the nose, ears, and Adam’s apple standing proudly.
Men were made of stern stuff. They had to be.
King Gillette, who worked selling cork seals for bottle caps, was inspired by the fact that cap and seal were tossed in the trash after the bottle was opened. Here was an object manufactured with precision yet cheap enough to discard after one use.
Could you do that with razor blades?
Others had invented safety razors, which had the blade shielded to prevent serious cuts. But these razors still used expensive forged blades that had to be re-sharpened by a professional cutler. Gillette and machinist William Emery Nickerson figured out how to make sharp razor blades cheaply, from thin stamped steel. Just insert a blade into the safety razor, shave your face, and discard the blade.
The razor itself—the handle which held the blade—Gillette sold for five dollars in 1903, equivalent to about $170 of today’s money. That’s a lot of money to pay for a razor, but cheap, disposable blades were a big improvement.
Gillette sold 51 razors and 168 blades in 1903. The next year he sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades. It took a while for the new mode of shaving to catch on, but Wikipedia says that by 1915, “Razor sales reached 450,000 units and blade sales exceeded 70 million units.”
With millions of men using safety razors and disposable blades, not all were Gillette products. Competitors included Ever-ready, Gem, and Schick. The Gillette Company could not afford to let its brand languish.
Thus, no Friday from 1946 through 1960 was complete without the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports—more commonly known as The Friday Night Fights—on NBC Radio (and, later, TV).
At commercial breaks we heard from a male quartet and a singing parrot, treating us to the Gillette theme song—
Look sharp! Feel sharp! Be sharp and listen, Mister— How are you fixed for blades? Do you have plenty? How are you fixed for blades? You’d better check! Please make sure you have enough, ’Cause worn-out blades Make shaving mighty tough. How are you fixed for blades? You’d better look— Gillette Blue Blades, we mean!
Prize fights were a sport on a par with baseball, football, basketball, or horse racing. The Gillette Cavalcade of Sportscovered all these events and more, but mostly: boxing. Your New Favorite Author heard Ezzard Charles defeat Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship. Charles, in turn, was dethroned by Jersey Joe Walcott, and he by Rocky Marciano.
This carnage could all be heard on Friday night, provided your radio was turned on, courtesy of Gillette’s new, improved Blue Blades. You could get two or three shaves from one blade, then it was time to change. But a new blade was only a nickel.
You no longer had to use a mug and a badger-hair brush. Space-age technology brought you shaving soap in an aerosol can, branded as Rise, Rapid Shave, Gillette Foamy, or Barbasol. Burma-Shave, famous for its rhyming roadside signs, was originally a product sold in tubes and tubs. For a brief period it came in aerosol form as well.
These canned shaves offered a stiff lather but had a major drawback: You applied them by hand, getting your fingers all soapy. You then had to dry, or at least wipe, your fingers so you could hold the razor.
By contrast, my badger-hair brush—still in use today—applies hot lather to my face but not to my hands. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, I get soapy fingers with my method, too. I just happen to like it better.
Toward the end of the canned lather era, somebody developed an aerosol that actually heats the foam to give you a hot shave. But it still gets all over your fingers.
Those who shave with an electric shaver have no such problems, but they’re missing all the fun.
Meanwhile, we who shave the old way have conquered one final technological hurdle: the blade.
In 1962 the British company Wilkinson Sword began selling stainless steel razor blades. Other companies were forced to compete by issuing their own stainless blades. You can shave a month with a stainless blade, not just a day or two as with the previous carbon steel blades.
It was chased down to its logical conclusion when companies simply started encasing their month-long blades in disposable plastic razor handles. This eliminated the need to change blades. Now, you just throw the whole thing away.
The price of a plastic razor with embedded blade is about a dollar. Sixty years ago you had a forever steel razor and used, say, twenty blades a month at a nickel a blade—about a dollar’s worth of blades each month.
But that 1963 dollar was equivalent to about ten dollars today. In 2023 we pay a devalued dollar for a month’s worth of shaves. The real price of shaving has gone down by ninety percent.
It’s pretty inexpensive these days to sport the face of a Roman senator.
Laurentius Franklinius Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer