Quelle barbe

In which a skeptical modernist learns to appreciate 19th Century technology.

Shaving has always been an unpleasant experience for me. My skin is sensitive, dries out easily, and I get allergic reactions to a lot of chemicals. At the same time, the bristle of my ever-nascent beard is incredibly rough and wirey. I tried electric razors, I tried disposables, I tried twin blades. I even considered giving up entirely and growing a beard, but that just itched even worse.

The least-bad option had turned out to be the Gillette Mach 2, and later the Mach 3. The M3Power helped a little, but not much—the vibro action helped get through the bristles without tugging on them, but that was all. The main plus of the Mach 2/3 was that at least it didn’t immediately clog up the way a Schick (Wilkinson-Sword) twin blade did; there was a good clean gap between the blades, without too much plastic in the way.

Then one day I found myself reading an article about old-style shaving. And by “old style”, I mean over a century old.

Back in the 1880s, the Kampfe brothers invented the first ever razor to have a disposable blade; previously shaving had involved the use of a straight razor, the kind you still find at a few barber shops. Then in 1903 King C. Gillette began selling his American Safety Razor, a disposable blade razor which covered up most of the blade, protecting against deep cuts. It became a hit, with sales growing exponentially. Eventually the Gillette razor became standard issue for the US military in World War I.

However, after the war Gillette was faced with a problem. The classic design had persisted for decades without being improved on significantly, and eventually the patents expired and other companies began to make replacement blades for everyone’s Gillette razor, then cheap copies of the Gillette design.

Thus was born the original shaving gimmick: the twin-blade razor, launched in 1971. You probably know the rest of the story: sprung blades, pivoting heads, three blades, four blades; and now an incredible five blades, two ‘lubricating strips’, and an extra blade on the back—life imitating satire.

But what if it was all a load of crap? What if there was nothing wrong with the original 1903 razor, other than Gillette’s inability to squeeze ever greater profits from it?

The article I was reading didn’t quite go that far; it said that modern plastic-head razors were preferable for people who were unwilling to learn to shave, and wanted something they could drag across their face while half asleep. However, it went on to say that for people with stiff bristly stubble or sensitive skin, an old fashioned double-edge safety razor was far better, if one was prepared to learn to use it.

I was pretty skeptical. The Mach 3 had clearly been far better than the twin blade I had used before, and that had been better than the fixed head razor before it. Could a design from 1903 be better than all of them? I decided further investigation was required.

Step 1, the article said, was to get a shaving brush. This posed a minor ethical dilemma. There are basically only two materials used to make shaving brushes. The cheap ones are made of boar bristle; the good ones are made from badger fur. The very best of all are made from the soft fur on the back of the badger’s neck.

Given my obsession with mustelids, this wasn’t good news. I generally feel that otter fur belongs on otters, and badger fur belongs on badgers. However, old fashioned shaving brushes are enough of a specialty item that the chances of getting an artificial shaving brush are more or less zero, as far as I can tell. So I reluctantly contributed to the death of a badger, purchasing a low end badger brush.

It turns out that the badgers in question are Chinese ones, killed by farmers who consider them a nuisance. In other words, the badger would be killed anyway; we’re not talking about some kind of badger fur farm, given the low demand. Also, it’s not like I’ll need a new brush on a regular basis; if I take care of this one, it should last indefinitely.

Anyhow, the brush worked wonders, along with some good shave gel. The brush retains water, which is then gradually released as you brush cream or gel into your face. Suddenly the gel frothed up into an even lather, and I could work it right into the bristles. The idea is to get a thin layer of oil and warm water across the entire skin surface. It worked; even with the old Mach 3, shaving was easier.

Since the brush had turned out to be as good as the article said, it was time to make the bigger investment. I pondered taking the cheapest route with the razor, but eventually decided to get a Merkur Futur. Solid steel, handmade in Germany. Adjustable for sensitive skin. Plus, I admit it, I love the design.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer heft of the thing, though. For plastic cartridge razors, lightness is a selling point; for a twin edge safety razor, you want solidity and weight, so you don’t end up jerking the blade around and cutting yourself.

I was a little nervous the first time out, but I took care, and everything went well. Smooth short strokes, allowing the razor to rest gently against the skin, and remembering to adjust the angle myself—no pivoting head on this instrument.

The result was amazing. For the first time, my face actually felt completely smooth after shaving, and there was no discomfort, no razor burn. In fact, the shave was so close that at 10pm that night, my face felt the way it normally did right after shaving with a Mach 3. Forget ‘5 o’clock shadow’. One tiny nick, which didn’t really bleed.

So there we have it. The solution to shaving misery is to spend a little more money up front, take a little more time, and go back to 1903. You’ll save money in the long run anyway; for the cost of a 4 pack of Mach 3 Turbo blades, you can get 20 double-edge Merkur blades, and I gather they last twice as long. (We shall see.) You can even get a replica of the original 1903 Gillette.