Herald & Journal, January 12, 1998

Trying to be sharp, look sharp


Every 24 hours, as many as 25,000 hairs grow up to a half a millimeter on the face of the average adult male.

The modern razor blade, honed to perfection, can cut its way through this stubble forest to give a close, smooth and safe shave.

Men began removing their fast-growing hair thousands of years ago, using slivers of flint and then bronze, and eventually iron blades. The world's first steel-edged "cut-throat" razors were invented in 1609. But the modern type of disposable safety razor blade did not appear until 1901, when a Wisconsin traveling salesman, King Camp Gillette, and an engineer, William Nickerson, were granted a patent.

Gillette decided one day that the cut-throat razor was neither efficient nor safe. He considered that the razor was dangerous enough to cut a man's throat. Gillette also disliked taking the time to strop the blade to sharpness.

Why not, reasoned Gillette, create a blade that never needed to be sharpened, was just the right size to shave a man's face, and was cheap enough to be thrown away when it wore out.

Gillette eventually perfected the double-edged safety razor blade, which fit into a specially designed holder with a handle and an adjustable head. The carbon steel blades were guaranteed to stay sharp for 20 shaves, and were sold in packs of 12.

Gillette set up his safety razor company and got his patent in 1901. The first razors went on sale in the United States in 1904. The initial sales were disappointing, however, and the company carried out an intensive advertising campaign in newspapers and gentlemen's magazines in the United States and Europe. By 1906, sales had reached $90,000 with 12 million blades were sold.

Gillette's picture appeared on packaging for many years, and he became world-famous and rich. He died in 1932.

I recall both of my grandfathers using the cut-throat blade when they shaved. I also recall that as they got older and their hands were not as steady, they would head for the barber shop at least once a week for a shave. Many barbers don't shave customers anymore, although they would still use the cut-throat to trim around the ears and neck after a haircut.

Personally, I hate shaving. I just think it's a waste of time. I gave it up for awhile and grew a beard. Got tired of that finally. Went back to one of Gillette's razors. But even if it's called a safety razor, you can cut yourself. When you nick yourself, you wind up with little pieces of toilet paper on your wounded face.

A rite of passage for any young man is his first shave. Like many boys, it started with a Christmas or birthday present of an electric razor. In earlier days, the Gillette safety razor came as gifts in boxed sets with silver-plated handles, and even more expensive sets were plated with gold. My first razor was a Schick electric which I used for several years until it wore out. Then, I bravely went to the safety razor. I must have used a roll of toilet paper while getting used to the razor.

When I finally gave up my beard, I went to the safety razor again. After all these years I still would nick myself, so finally I went back to the electric razor.

I still hate shaving. But I'm thankful that King Camp Gillette invented the safety razor. It's better than the cut-throat or slivers of flint.

Do you remember the Gillette parrot in their ads who said, "Be sharp, look sharp, use Gillette blades?"

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