Monday, April 22, 2013

"S" is for Shaving

Warning:  This is a Super-Manly Post. Approach with caution.

It's also super-long and I do apologize. I know it smacks of self-indulgence and self-importance in a community of presssed-for-time A to Z bloggers, it's just that I did a lousy job of paring it down, and it's hard to constrain Super-Manliness, which tends to expand to fit whatever container it finds itself in. I appreciate your indulgence.

So, what are those strange artifacts in the picture below?

If you haven't the faintest idea, I was going to tell you to go play with your X-Box and get off my lawn, I have socks older than you. But on second thought, pull up a chair, you might learn something, and who knows, could even end up carrying the banner for an ancient rite of manliness yourself.

If you guessed double-edge safety razor, badger hair shaving brush and shaving soap, you're right, and if you guessed it’s the Merkur razor, Rooney brush and Col. Conk's Bay Rum shaving soap that I use when I'm not sporting my Super-Manly beard, you’re even righter, and are clearly a person of class and intelligence.  I actually enjoy shaving with these; so much so that when I have my beard, even though I look better with it, I'm constantly tempted to shave it so I can indulge in the daily pleasure of a traditional wet shave.

The one manly corner of the bathroom
Yes, I shave the way my grandfathers did. I could shave the way my great-great-grandfathers did and barbers and some stalwarts still do, with a straight razor. It's undeniably manlier than anything this side of a dry shave with a sharp rock, but any tool gives me pause when the possible results of mishandling include death and dismemberment.  A safety razor is only really potentially dangerous when disassembled, a margin of safety I'm comfortable with, especially with children in the house. Plus, a straight razor requires regular honing by a practiced owner or a professional, which just isn't my bag, man.

I believe the version of the safety razor introduced by King C. Gilette in 1903 was a significant and genuine improvement in the state of the art, but I don't believe the same for the cartridge razors introduced in the 1970s.

Multiple blades? The efficacy of two blades is debatable; three, four and five (!) blades are artifice, snake oil and flim-flam, respectively.* Pivoting heads? The compactness of the traditional safety razor obviates the need, and remember, we homo sapiens are blessed not only with opposable thumbs, but pivoting wrists and fine motor skills.  If one lacks the dexterity to follow the countours of one's face without an articulated razor head, one might be happier with an electric shaver or a beard.  Fewer nicks and cuts?  I've suffered no cuts and only a few tiny nicks with this razor, fewer than with multiple blade disposables, and none requiring so much as a dab with the syptic pencil.

I don't do this purely, or even mostly, for the sake of nostalgia.  The "old-fashioned" safety razor and brush have real advantages over the multi-blade, lubri-stripped wonders.

The German-made Merkur 33C razor pictured above costs $32, and refill blades cost between $2 and $10 for a 10-pack, whereas the latest five-blade razors are $10 and up, and cartridges cost between $20 and $40 per ten (although there are cheaper multi-blade alternatives). The typical safety razor is made of three pieces of steel plus the blade.  It's not going to break.  Hard to imagine that being true of a plastic Mach 5000 Terminator or electric shaver. Manufacturers of modern razors like to refer to them as "shaving systems."  I think there's a lot to be said for a shaving "system" that contains no plastic and could easily outlive my grandchildren.

There is more room between the blade and the bar or comb of a safety razor for soap and stubble to exit through than between blades of a multi-blade cartridge, so it clogs less easily, rinses more easily, and because it has two sides, requires half the rinsing.  Also, shaving cream is thick and gooey, not because that's better, but it's how an instant "lather" is achieved without a brush.  But all that's needed is lubrication, and shaving soap is every bit as good in that regard, if not better.  The thinner lather of shaving soap loads up the razor less, further reducing the amount of rinsing needed.  I only need to rinse a safety razor three times during a shave; about ten with a cartridge razor.

But the best advantage of the safety razor and brush is the most subjective, that is, the experience.
The best things a man can feel on his face are the caress of a loved one, the winds of freedom, a hot towel at the barber shop and shaving soap applied with badger hair shaving brush.  The razor has a satisfying heft to it, the weight alone providing sufficient pressure for cutting the beard.  It's a stylish and elegant accessory worthy of a gentleman, not an amorphous plastic contrivance that looks like it would be more at home in ET's interstellar toiletries kit.

What many will see as the one undeniable disadvantage of all this is the time required, and it does take longer.  From the time I first wet my face to the time I slap on the after shave balm (my one concession to modernity; traditional aftershaves are mostly alcohol and can dry the skin) is a full ten minutes in "luxury mode," where I take my time and enjoy it; a couple less if I'm more purposeful about it.  Electric shavers are the undisputed speed champions (though that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I have to wait for my face to dry thoroughly in order to use them comfortably), and they do offer a close shave.  If one's idea of shaving is a pedestrian chore, the goal of which is to get it over with as quickly as possible, then go with the electric.

But for me, speed isn't the issue. In taking the time for a traditional wet shave, I'm reclaiming a few minutes from my morning to enjoy an time-honored ritual of manhood.  When I look in the mirror, it's like Cary Grant is looking back at me (that is, if I squint and hold my head at a certain angle). It sets the tone for the day; less hurried, less harried.  My dad taught me to value good grooming, and after a traditional shave I feel well-groomed, manly, and confident, ready to take on the world.  Even if the world is only the inside of a cubicle. 

For further reading:

* From Wikipedia:
The marketing of increasing numbers of blades in a cartridge has been parodied since the 1970s. The debut episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975 included a parody advertisement for the Triple Trac Razor, shortly after the first two-blade cartridge for men's razors was advertised. In the early 1990s, the (Australian) Late Show skitted a (insert name of popular razor brand) "3000" with 16 blades and 75 lubricating strips as arrived at with the help of NASA scientists - "The first blade distracts the hair...". In 2004, a satirical article in The Onion entitled "F--- Everything, We're Doing Five Blades" predicted the release of five-blade cartridges, two years before their commercial introduction.
[A battery-powered vibrating action], as advertised by Gillette, was intended to raise hair up and away from the skin prior to being cut. These claims were ruled in an American court as "unsubstantiated and inaccurate."


  1. This reminds me of my dad's shaver. Although he didn't use the brush, he did lather up with soap. I remember the little slit in the back of the medicine cabinet just for the disposal of used blades.

    Thanks for the lesson on the art of manly shaving.

  2. Thanks, Joan. I've seen those little slits but never knew what they were for. Leave 'em for the person who next remodels the bathroom to deal with! I have a 99-cent disposable metal "blade safe" for the same purpose. I worry this post might bore some people to the point that they look for their own straight razor for relief, so I'm glad you liked it.

  3. I sure liked your post, Jerry! Part of it is the memories you evoked. My dad used one of those safety razors and the badger hair brush, too. The stand-out memory is and incident that happened when I was 23, my sister 16. We were still in bed when we saw Dad come out of the bathroom one Saturday morning and walk around the house sporting a sudsy white beard. "What's he doing?" I wondered aloud. My sis piped up, "Waiting for his beard to grow!" That led to uncontrollable, bed-shaking, dad-frowning laughter from the two of us. I'll never forget that.

    The other thing I enjoy is your humor. "...get off my lawn, I have socks older than you." Thank you, Jerry. xoA

  4. Thanks, Annis. I'm glad we could we could stir up some good childhood memories. What a fun story. Few things are as fun as those that get the stinkeye from Dad. One could read through my blogs and conclude I'm obsessed with material things, but it's not so much the things themselves, but what they mean, what they evoke, what they remind us of, what they inspire.

  5. My dad's safety razor looked just like yours. I won't repeat the words he said when he used it for the first time after I "borrowed" it to shave my legs.
    Kathy @ Swagger Writers

  6. Kathy, that's too funny. Fortunately, my daughter borrows my wife's pink five-blade special. But come to think of it, years ago my wife did borrow my disposable razor, and I had choice words, too.

  7. Like you, I am keen on an old fashion wet shave. I remember my father using a mug and shaving brush. I tried that, but gave it up. My most memorable shave was in a barbershop in Hong Kong, almost fifty years ago. Hot lather and a straight razor. Best shave I ever had. My father-in-law shaved until his dying day with his World War II government issue Gillette safety razor. "Where is Pa's razor," I asked Mary a month or two after Pa died. "Um," she hesitated, "I threw it in the trash." I went home and had a good cry.

  8. Hong Kong? That would be memorable. Hard to imagine a more exotic shave unless it were in Zanzibar or Casablanca or maybe Seville (ha ha). Oh, my I would cry over that razor, too. To me, the utilitarian stuff issued by the government to GIs is every bit as interesting as their more ornate civilian counterparts. One could shave with a WWII issue razor with no worry of breaking it or wearing it out.


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