Monday, 09 June 2014 02:00

Getting a Close Shave the Old Fashioned Way

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Sometimes the most mundane of routines can produce the most interesting objects for collectors. We tend to overlook them but the more entrenched routines can have the most interesting the histories. Take shaving and haircutting for instance. Most of us shave pretty well every day. Men especially usually have a daily routine of removing facial hair, or at least keeping it trimmed and neat.

The vast majority of men just grab whatever over-priced, multi-bade miracle shaver is currently the most popular but there is a growing movement, especially among young people, to do things the old way. There are many new, very expensive, classic shaving kits on the market but, or course, the real fun is collecting and using vintage pieces.

You, like me, may have wondered when shaving started; when you see TV shows or movies set in ancient times, most of the men are clean shaven. How did they do that before the blade was invented? Is it all fiction, were most men hairy back then?

The fact is; there is evidence that men have been removing their facial hair since the very earliest of times. Ancient cave drawings from 100,000 BC show men using clam shells to pluck hair. Ouch. The first known instruments for cutting hair, flint stones, date back to 30,000 BC.

Ancient Asians and Native North Americans had it a bit easier, they tend not to grow so much facial hair so they would just pluck it out as it grew in. They say you get used to it.

European and African men have beards that just grow and grow; they’re a nuisance and, especially in hot climates, become home to nasty critters. Many ancients believed that evil spirits entered the body through facial hair so it’s been a constant struggle to get rid of it or keep it in check.

Ancient Egyptians are mostly responsible for introducing the practice of shaving in our culture. By 3000 BC metalworking had been invented, copper or gold blades were available and the Egyptians especially became obsessed with cleanliness and hair removal. They would bathe several times a day and shave off all their hair – everywhere. Both men and women wore wigs on their bald heads. Shaving helped prevent head lice and the wigs were designed to be cooler than real hair.

The practice of shaving facial hair eventually spread to Rome and Greece. In all cultures it was seen as a sign of civility; the freemen were clean-faced, slaves had beards. Unshaven men were referred to as barbarians meaning “unbarbered”.

Barbering and shaving of course go hand-in-hand; he word barber comes from the old Latin word for beard and most well-to-do Romans didn’t shave themselves. They had slaves do it or went to a tonsor, a place to gather and gossip and be shaved every day. In 300 BC professional barbers were brought into Rome from Sicily; they used fine steel blades that were sharpened regularly. Shaving became even more entrenched.

The art of barbering continued throughout Europe and by the Middle Ages, after roughly 1200, they took on the task of surgery. Barber surgeons did blood-letting, teeth-pulling and minor surgery as well as shaving and haircutting. It was all pretty bloody work and often painful so the barber had plenty of rags and a pole or staff for the patient to hang on to. That staff, with a bloody rag wrapped around it, is the origin of the familiar, striped barber pole. Barbers would put it outside to advertise their business. Oddly, it actually attracted people into the shop.

98 straight razor contentThe modern history of shaving began in the early 1800s in England with the development of the safety razor. The word “safety” was applied to many inventions at the time but it was especially important with the razor; a very sharp weapon applied to the throat. Up to then all shaving was done with the use of a straight razor, basically a folding knife, and most people of means preferred it to be in the hands of a professional.

In 1847 William Henson invented the “hoe shaped” razor, a major step forward. Now it became safer for men to shave themselves, though it was still a lot of work keeping the blade sharp. Any entrepreneur could see there would be an exploding market for razors for someone who could come up with the right product that could be conveniently used at home.

That someone was American travelling salesman King Gillette, who combined the hoe razor design with the idea of using a disposable, double-edged blade in 1895. It took him six years to find a way of manufacturing the blade but when he did, he sold the razors at a loss just get people to buy his very profitable blades. He soon became one of the world’s wealthiest men.

Gillette made shaving at home much more convenient but it was still “wet shaving”, requiring hot water, soap and a brush to lather it all up. A retired U.S. army colonel named Jacob Schick, who was camping in British Columbia and Alaska during a very cold winter found this not convenient at all. The experience inspired him to develop the first working electric razor, which didn’t require lather or water. It took the world by storm in 1931. It was such a sensation that Schick, whose company also made traditional razors, sold the blade division.

That’s too bad; one of Schick’s inventions, the injector razor, was still quite popular and by the 1960s, when shaving foam became available in aerosol cans, many electric razor users went back to blades. Blades may not be as convenient, but they give a better shave and when it comes to personal grooming, convenience isn’t always the top priority.

98 shaving kit contentThat may explain the current interest in the more traditional methods of shaving and shaving implements.

People now are reverting right back to the straight razor. The hoe, or double-edged, razors with disposable blades don’t have much collector interest though I must admit I have a fondness for my 1939 Schick Injector which I still use from time to time. It doesn’t give as close a shave as those multi-blade monsters but it’s a smoother shave and it sure looks a lot nicer.

Vintage straight razors can get quite expensive, $200 or more for a fully restored, quality piece but you can find the plainer ones for around $20 to $40. The handle can be made of plastic, wood, Bakelite, ivory or even silver and that has a lot to do with the value but it’s the blade that’s most important. The most prized blades are made in England or Solingen, Germany though good ones are made in North America too. You want to look for a blade that has not been over-honed, i.e. worn down too much. Also check the hinge, it shouldn’t wiggle from side to side, after all you want complete control.

All you need now is a good brush (badger hair is the best), a mug, some soap and you’re set to put some fun into that mundane routine. Just be careful, they don’t call the straight razor “cut-throat” for nothing.