When it comes to tools used in a man’s shaving, we at the Deseret Barber Shop in Salt Lake City use some of the best razors and blades ever invented. I know I often take for granted these modern tools which have been perfected over thousands of years. In the ancient days of man’s shaving it is known that caveman used two shells and other crude tools to do the job. Cavemen used two shells to pull the hair out or they used other sharp tools and water.
Around 3000 BC when copper tools were developed, copper razors were invented for man’s shaving. The idea of an aesthetic approach to personal hygiene may have begun at this time, although Egyptian priests may have practiced something similar to this earlier.
Men scraped their hair away in early times man with crude items such as stone, flint, clam shells and other sharpened materials. He later experimented with bronze, copper and iron razors. In more recent centuries he used the steel straight razor aptly called the “cut-throat” for obvious reasons.
For hundreds of years razors maintained a knife-like design and needed to be sharpened by the owner or a barber with the aid of a honing stone or leather strop. These “weapons” required considerable skill by the user to avoid cutting himself badly.
It’s not clear when these crude implements gave way to what we now think of as razors. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, circular solid gold or copper razors can be found as far back as the 4th millennium BC in some Egyptian tombs. Still other cultures sharpened volcanic obsidian glass and used those.
Another story posits that the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus introduced the razor to his people in the 6th century BC, but shaving didn’t really catch on with Romans for another hundred years or so. Julius Caesar supposedly preferred to have his beard plucked out with tweezers, although other Roman men used razors or rubbed the beards from their faces using pumice stones.
We have to fast forward to more modern times to find more significant advances in man’s shaving tools. Designs for safety razors date back to at least 1762, but they didn’t really catch on until 1828, when they debuted in Sheffield, England. In 1847 William Henson invented the hoe-shaped razor that most of us have in our medicine cabinets.
In 1895 a traveling salesman named King Camp Gillette combined this shape with the idea of shaving with a disposable double-edged blade. The resulting safety razor eventually made Gillette a fortune and solved the hassle of having to remove the razor’s blade to sharpen it every few shaves.
The idea was great, but there was a problem: the blades weren’t easy to make. It took another six years for Gillette to find someone who could actually make the disposable blades. MIT professor William Nickerson joined up with Gillette to figure out a way to stamp the blades out of sheets of high-carbon steel, and by 1903 they had their first batch of razors ready to take on America’s beards. By 1906 Gillette’s design was moving 300,000 units a year. Interestingly, Gillette sold the razors at a loss, but he more than made up for it by selling the blades at a huge profit.
Although Gillette’s invention came from his notion that he should invent something people bought, threw away, and then repurchased, he wasn’t your typical capitalist. He became a strong proponent of utopian socialism later in his life and planned a community in Arizona in which engineers would rationally orchestrate all activity. Gillette even offered Teddy Roosevelt $1 million to serve as president of this planned utopia in 1910, but Roosevelt declined.
In the twentieth century, Gillette razors were the most prevalent. Double-edge razors are currently readily available and are manufactured by Merkur in Germany, Edwin Jagger in Great Britain, Kiwishaver in New Zealand, Parker in India, Feather in Japan, Hart Steel and Weber Razor in the United States, Ikon in Thailand, and Weishi in China.
Double-edge razors are named so because the blade that they use has two sharp edges on opposite sides of the blade. Current multi-bladed cartridge manufacturers attempt to differentiate themselves by having more or fewer blades than their competitors, each arguing that their product gives a greater shave quality at a more affordable price.
Today the Gillette multi-blade razors are extremely popular in man’s shaving. They are the latest in a long line of improvements and development of safety razors which we have today. I expect that at some time in the future the tools we use today for shaving might appear primitive to the men of that time.