I can remember the first time a real razor was applied to me. It was terrifying. As a child, I had been to what I assumed was a normal barber but in fact was a barber-cum-ladies-hairstyler. They used electric trimmers to tidy up your sideburns and neckline. It was fun and kind of ticklish. When I arrived in Manchester at 18, though, that guy was a real barber. His shop was a disgrace. The sinks were bright lime green and cracked. He had no hair on the top of his head at all, and a dodgy beard. Not good advertisements. Towards the end of my first trim, a routine prune on the way home between college and halls, he unsheathed his cut-throat widowmaker.
The history of the razor is an odd one. Even at 18, I discovered that electric razors were utter crap. I don’t have too many whiskers, but the ones I have are Desperate Dan iron wool that can stop a bullet. The Philishave soon went in the bin, and anyway, the battery didn’t even last for one shave. Eventually I gravitated to the wet shave. And today, even in Britain, your choice is limited: the British Wilkinson Sword, or the American Gillette. Deciding that I had better have the best a man can get, I went Yankee at a young age. Had I known that Wilkinson really did make swords, since 1772, I would never have been swayed. I was a fool. Even their 1990s advertising which put their too-sharp blades behind a safety cage (their “Protector” range) could not turn me.
Let us compare the packaging. The featured image for this post is a cut-throat man’s razor. The Wilkinson Sword package, for the effete, not only hides the blade but in fact doses you with the ladyfriend known as Aloe Vera. The fun we had with that, Vera being a woman’s name and Aloe being the famous British greeting. It is a scandal. Not only that, but the price of these multi-bladed plastic shitbuckets will make your wallet ache. They are so expensive, they come with security tags.
I began to regroup. If these patented monstrosities really were that good, why did people continue to make the old-fashioned razor blades? The only use we found for them growing up was to use them to scrape paint from the edge of a window pane after decorating. They looked bloody dangerous, yet they came in a handle known as a “safety razor”. From our standpoint, looking at the electrics on one hand, and the “protector” blades on the other, there was nothing safe about them. This, historically, is very odd.
In the early 1900s, a man invented something we call the safety razor. That man, with the help of William Nickerson, was the improbably named King Camp Gillette. He took some terrible French model, invented as early as 1762, and thoroughly modernised it. Disposable blades were his USP. The Gillette safety razor was quite honestly the most effeminate invention and did not take off in Britain for a long time. Real men went, perhaps twice a week, to a “penny a shave” barber who trimmed off the undergrowth with some deft flicks of a cut-throat. The razors were too expensive for the working classes to keep and maintain anyway. Only the wealthy would shave daily, at the hands of a personal barber. Like mowing your lawn, middle class Britain did not stoop so low as to cut their own beards.
The 1960s saw the advent of the modern razor, the cartridge razor. Not only were the blades disposable, but they came in sealed plastic units that made it absolutely impossible to cut yourself in any way at all. The multi-bladed offerings of today came much later. I always wondered: why so many blades. Is there a limit?
There are several reasons for having many blades. Clearly, more blades means longer lasting. The work is shared across all 3 or 5 blades. What this also does is help some of the persistent whiskers to be fluffed up a bit, only to be chopped off by a following blade. It also spreads the load across a larger area, thus helping you to shave not only closer but more rapidly and with far less risk of facial injury. If you have a vibrating model with a battery inside, the result is an even gentler yet closer shave. This comes at a high price, of course, even if a blade lasts you a couple of weeks, a pack of 4 will cost around $20.
I had had enough. I went to a real barber and spoke up, asking for assistance. If these blades are so good, I demanded, why does it never remove either my top lip or in fact anything else anywhere on my face? Aha, my good man, came the reply. You’ve been fooled by those marketing men. The very closest shave can be achieved using this, at which he unveiled a widowmaker. Seeing the terror on my face, he announced a second best alternative. The safety razor.
Let us be clear. There is no safety in razors. Everything is relative. I type with 7 fingers this morning, having accidentally touched the edge of my safety razor with my forefinger, which is now bandaged heavily and spouting blood all over the kitchen. When this is the finger used to unlock your iPhone, this is a life-changing injury. But it is far, far safer than a cut-throat, and nobody, in a drunken rage, could use my safety razor as a weapon. It might cut, but it will not kill.
If you’re in a rush, as so many are, the wet-shave Gillette disposable will clean off most of the fluff in the fastest time. But at the weekend, my German-made, precision-engineered safety is my weapon of choice. The blades cost less than $1 each and last a long time. But if you baulk at the Gillette prices, and don’t feel the need for a safety, there is a new kid in town.
Harry’s are a modern brand. They don’t sell razors. They offer something called a subscription shaving service. They offer a free trial and a razor for around £2 / $2.50. That’s right, for a mere fraction of the Gillette and Sword multi-blade offerings, you can sign up to have them delivered every few weeks right into your hand automatically. After just a few months in business, GQ have labelled them the best razor there is right now. Try them. We’ll report back in the autumn!